CRTC, Federal Court Decisions Will Shape What Net Neutrality Means to Mobile Providers

As the line blurs between broadcasting and streaming, federal regulators and courts are deciding just what net neutrality means on mobile devices.

Upcoming decisions from the CRTC and the Federal Court of Canada could clear that up, or make things more complicated. At issue are cellphone plans that allow subscribers to use specific apps – usually streaming video or music – without that usage being counted towards the subscriber’s regular data allotment.

Critics say that gives unfair preference to certain users and apps, violating net neutrality rules, which require all internet traffic to be treated equally. But two Canadian wireless providers disagree.

Last year, the CRTC ruled that streaming TV apps offered by Bell and Videotron violated net neutrality rules.

Both of those apps allowed customers to pay for the time they spent streaming TV shows on their mobile devices, rather than the data.

Customers who also subscribed to traditional cable services provided by those two companies also got more content to choose from.

In Videotron’s case, customers had to subscribe to cable TV in order to access the app (while Videotron does not operate in most of Canada, it is one of the largest telecom companies in Quebec, offering cable television, internet and mobile services).

In its decision, released a little over a year ago, the CRTC ruled that “Bell Mobility and Videotron have given an undue preference in favour of subscribers of their respective mobile TV services, as well as in favour of their own services, and have subjected consumers of other audiovisual content services, and other services, to a corresponding undue disadvantage.”

Bell appealed that decision to Federal Court, which heard arguments in January.

Bell claims that the streaming TV products were an extension of its broadcasting operations not its mobile offerings.

It’s a highly technical argument based own how legislation distinguishes between mobile and broadcasting – two technologies that were once clearly separate but are increasingly similar.

There’s no word as to when the federal court will make a decision.

While Videotron hasn’t challenged the CRTC on that decision, another of its services is the subject of a related complaint to telecom regulator.

Videotron customers who subscribe to one of its “premium” plans can listen to streaming music on one of several apps without using any of their data. It’s a practice that’s also known as “zero-rating.”

Several public interest groups filed a complaint with the CRTC, saying that this violates the same rules as Videotron and Bell’s streaming TV offerings.

They’ve been joined by other telecoms providers. In a submission to the CRTC, Rogers.

“In Rogers’ view, the zero-rated Unlimited Music service provided by Videotron suffers form the same legal flaws as the mobile television services that were offered by Bell Mobility and Videotron earlier this year,” the company wrote in a submission to the CRTC.

Videotron, however argues that Unlimited Music is different because streaming music service don’t pay to be included in the Unlimited Music offering – instead it says any streaming service that’s “legal” and “reputable” qualifies for inclusion.

Because of that – and the fact that any customer with a qualifying mobile plan gets the same service – it says its not showing anyone “undue preference.”

Instead, it says Unlimited Music is a way for the company to differentiate itself in a competitive marketplace.

The CRTC is currently reviewing submissions on the matter. A decision to what steps it will take next is expected within the next couple weeks.