The UBB fight starts with a simple message: Sell Bell

| March 30, 2011
Photo: Len not Lenny/Flickr

Bill Wittur explores how we can resist the increase in the cost of Internet services in Canada by cancelling and boycotting services related to the companies behind these increases. Focusing on just one company -- Bell Canada or BCE Inc -- makes it that much easier to funnel concern about what's happening to Canada's digital infrastructure.

I used to work with a marketing agency that did "Day in a Life" stories about typical consumers. That's you and me and what we do every day so that they could push ads at us... every day from every place and space we occupied.

As discussed in my first article, that model has changed, but Canada's giant media companies like Bell Canada or BCE Inc are still catching up. Instead, they have developed an expensive and vast network of publications and media subsidiaries to corral our activities not only as consumers of goods and services, but also the actual shows and entertainment that we absorb.

Understanding who owns what is critical for making informed decisions about today's mainstream media environment. Last year's "Save Local TV" campaign was nothing more than a white-wash campaign designed to confuse consumers about the costs of cable subscriptions. Networks like CTV and Global were standing up to satellite and cable companies (i.e. Bell and Rogers) in a fake standoff concerning the increase in rates. The only real solution in the whole mess would have been to cut your cable or satellite subscription, assuming you have one.

Many people in the U.S. seem to be following this direction, with Mother Jones showing recently that cable TV subscriptions have dropped a whopping 14 per cent in the last year.

Will Canadians take similar actions? Let's hope so.

Why?

The answer as to why we would want to "sell Bell" seems obvious enough. We've had enough of being told that this is what our Internet is going to cost, like it or not.

Even though Bell Canada has announced that they may be backing off the UBB proposal that was submitted to the CRTC, it's very likely that they'll continue to push for a price increase in some different form or name. The current title being used is "Aggregated Volume Pricing," but they still want to eliminate their competition, namely the small independent ISPs.

With that in mind, it's still important that we do everything we can to push Bell Canada (and other conglomerates) out of our lives. Every cut you make, every cancellation, every transfer of an account to a competitor affects Bell Canada and other media conglomerates multiple times:

• Instant hit to revenue. It's simple: transferring your phone to a competitor means you pay that competitor for monthly service and not Bell;

• Ad loss. Networks like CTV and their radio stations start to lose ad revenue because the audience is no longer there.

• Dilution of influence. Companies like Bell ARE mass media. Reductions in audience translate to an immediate dilution in influence. All of a sudden "Economic Action Plan" ads are no longer part of your life.

• Transfer of media influence to independents. We still need to get our news and share our stories somewhere. Independent media and social tools allow this to happen more readily and freely.

Bell Canada ownership structure

My goal is to introduce the components of Bell's media empire and offer reasonable suggestions to how you can "sell Bell" or curb your appetite for services related to Bell Canada. Unfortunately, the details below may not be complete, as Bell is active with a wide array of investments and subsidiaries, so I invite you to add any lists of their partners as well as share your opinions about ways you can alter your media habits as well.

Let's start by looking at what we know Bell Canada or BCE Inc. owns:

• Residential and telephone services

- Besides your basic land-line, Bell owns Virgin Mobile Canada, Solo Mobile and Bell Mobility. Other operations include NorthWestTel and Northern Tel.

• TV

- CTVGlobeMedia, including the CTV Television Network;

- A Channel stations;

- Bell TV;

- TeleSat Canada.

• Internet: Bell owns Sympatico which they've relabelled as Bell Internet Services

• Radio

- CHUM Radio, which includes some 30+ radio stations across Canada.

• Print

- Bell owns 15 per cent of the Globe and Mail. The Thomson family in Toronto owns the other 85 per cent;

• Retail

- Bell owns the chain of stores known as The Source, a place many of us know as RadioShack;

- Bell Store (or Espace Bell in Quebec). It should be obvious that this is a Bell asset, but it's important that when you see one, you keep walking.

• Main subsidiaries

- Aliant;

- Northwestel;

- Telebec.

• Bell Home Monitoring

- Launched in 2007

• CGI Canada -- Bell owns 29 per cent of this IT consulting service.

• Real estate assets:

- Bell Lightbox, the central location for the Toronto International Film Festival

- Bell Centre in Montreal

I don't know about you, but I find the list above a little overwhelming and I'm always astounded just how far companies like Bell reach into our day-to-day interactions.

The good news in all of this is that the Internet provides an easy and comprehensive way to avoid Bell. Login in with your independent ISP service, find a site that's not owned by them, enjoy and repeat!

Ownership of Bell

You may not know it, but the odds are pretty good that if you have ANY savings with mutual funds or other assets, they will hold Bell stock.

"Selling Bell" in this case would be a hard thing to do since almost all mutual funds hold Bell, so you may want to consider just holding individual companies. Alternatively, you could use voting rights to lobby Bell to change its act.

Some of you may also work for an organization that offers a pension fund. Again, almost all of these organizations will hold Bell stock and even though you may not be able to alter the opinion of your fund manager, it's still important that you write them and tell them that you would like them to investigate alternatives to holding Bell.

Board of directors

Bell Canada's directors also have a significant influence on the direction of the company and they should not be left out of this discussion.

People like billionaire Jim Pattison or corporate citizen Paul Tellier are behind the Board at Bell. It's important that they know Canadians are not impressed with UBB and other uncompetitive practices. Write them and tell them that they need to do what's best for Bell Canada. They need to help put a stop to UBB and throttling.

Local stations and programming

I predict that the biggest pawns in this game will be local TV stations like the A Channel network and radio stations that want to air some sense of independence and focus on local issues, but who might also be caught in a whirl of corporate mandates, controls and bureaucracy.

As you can see in the list above, Bell has a lot of direct influence over local stations and programming and it's up to us to demand that these stations deliver local content as opposed to generic information that we can get anywhere.

In fact, these local networks can have a really unique and positive impact when it comes to local content. An example of this evolution is with CHCH in Hamilton. At one point, it was looking like it may have been bought out by the employees of the original station, but was ultimately bought by a small group of investors that label themselves as "Channel Zero"

In an ideal world, these mass media platforms would open up to local content as opposed to narrowing the range of services that they provide.

Bell and your media buying activities

This part of the discussion may not be for everyone, but many of you may own your own small business or be actively involved with the marketing and promotion of a not-for-profit, charity, co-op or other organization. You may simply be trying to get your own new business off the ground and you're looking for effective ways to let people know you're selling something that's an alternative to mass-produced goods and services.

You may just be posting your new business listing for an organic or local market.

If you're in political circles, you might be tempted to put up a big glossy ad in the run-up to a potential election.

As a case in point, some of you thought my first article focused too much on the business choices related to media buying and planning, so here's an example that might be a little more close to you. The NDP just spent a lot of money on TV ads in the past few weeks. While this is my own opinion and not that of rabble.ca or its editors, I see this is an unfortunate waste of donations because these ads are simply funding the organizations and companies that many might argue hate the NDP the most. Do you really think the folks with the CTV (in many circles referred to as "Conservative TV") want the NDP to win an election? With that in mind, are the NDP going to get great rates on their TV spots, especially after it's been shown that the Conservatives are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Economic Action Plan ads?

Making media choices is a political decision and, again, in my humble opinion, the NDP just gave millions to the very companies that are trying to suffocate our ability to get independent and objective information on the Internet.

Sell Bell

So ... we've covered ways to get Bell out of your life. For many of you, it may not be easy to change all of these things like phone services or cell phone accounts, but it's an important first step in sending a message that we don't like the way they do business.

In fact, I personally feel that the CRTC finally did something right by making it easier for people to change their ISP plans.

Canada's other media conglomerates

Bell Canada is just one of the small group of companies that have a significant influence on what we see, read and watch every day.

While there are some other "smaller" conglomerates, the others are Rogers Communications, Videotron, Astral, Transcontinental and Telus. Cutting your reliance on any of these companies will go a long way to generating support for competition in this country, along with eliminating the economic and social power that these companies and their backers have on our day to day lives.

But let's start with an easy theme that will send a strong message to those that want to increase the cost of using the Internet: Sell Bell.

Bill Wittur is the owner and operator of Bottree Digital Services. He provides digital strategy consulting for all organizations, including not-for-profits and co-ops.

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