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ARCHIVED -  Decision CRTC 2001-123

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Decision CRTC 2001-123

  Ottawa, 23 February 2001
  Pelmorex Communications Inc.
Across Canada 1999-1772-0 
  Application processed by Public Notice CRTC 2000-71 dated 31 May 2000
 

Proposal for an "All Channel Alert" system - Denied

 

Summary

  The Commission, by majority vote, denies an application by Pelmorex Communications Inc. (Pelmorex) for amendments to its licence for The Weather Network/MétéoMédia. The amendments related to the applicant's proposal to establish an All Channel Alert (ACA) service to be made available to all broadcasting distribution undertakings (BDUs) in Canada. Pelmorex proposed that all Class 1 BDUs be required to display these alerts which would relate to weather conditions and other emergencies. The applicant indicated that the alerts would appear on all television channels offered by the BDUs in the form of alphanumeric crawls, that is, textual messages that would move across the screen. The applicant proposed to raise its wholesale rate by $0.13 per subscriber per month for all BDUs carrying the ACA service.
  The Commission considers that an alert system similar to the one that Pelmorex proposed could effectively complement the warnings already provided by broadcasters by making available the official warnings issued by authorized government agencies such as Environment Canada. It is, however, concerned about a number of aspects of the proposal. These concerns are discussed within the decision.
  The Commission is of the view that a more suitable proposal might be developed if there were closer cooperation among broadcasters, representatives of the broadcasting distribution industry and other interested parties in order to resolve the issues identified by the Commission in this decision. These issues should be addressed in any future application.
 

The applicant's proposal

1. Pelmorex owns and operates the national English- and French-language weather specialty services The Weather Network/MétéoMédia. It requested that the Commission amend its licence so that it could provide the ACA service to BDUs.
2. According to Pelmorex's application, the ACA service would provide, in text form, local warnings of imminent threats to life or property caused by severe weather disturbances, natural disasters or other emergencies on behalf of authorized government agencies such as Environment Canada. The technology provided by Pelmorex would enable alerts to be displayed on every television channel offered by a BDU.
3. Pelmorex further requested that the Commission take the following actions to facilitate the implementation of its proposal:
 
  • increase the maximum authorized wholesale rate for The Weather Network/MétéoMédia by $0.13 per subscriber per month for BDUs that carry the ACA service;
 
  • exclude any revenue associated with the ACA service from the calculation of Pelmorex's Canadian programming expenditure requirements, which are determined by reference to the licensee's revenues. Should the ACA revenues not be excluded, Pelmorex requested that the maximum authorized wholesale rate be increased by $0.21 per subscriber per month;
 
  • apply the Commission's access rules to the ACA service so that all Class 1 BDUs would be required to carry it. Pelmorex proposed that carriage of the ACA service be optional for Class 2 and 3 undertakings. (Class 2 and 3 undertakings serve about one million subscribers in total, although about 20% of such subscribers are served by systems interconnected to a Class 1 system); and
 
  • require BDUs to distribute ACA warnings applicable to their service areas on all channels that they provide, pursuant to section 9(1)(h) of the Broadcasting Act.
 

Interventions

4. One hundred fifty-three interveners supported Pelmorex's proposal as a means to enhance public safety. Supporting interveners included representatives of the federal, provincial and municipal governments, police and fire department representatives, organizations concerned with public safety and individual citizens. Some qualified their support by, for example, suggesting that the Pelmorex proposal be augmented by other types of alerts so that Canadians who do not subscribe to BDUs might be informed about emergency situations.
5. The Commission received interventions from broadcasters, cable, satellite and multipoint distribution system (MDS) companies as well as the visually impaired. While they generally supported the principle of an emergency alert service, they raised a number of specific concerns about various aspects of the Pelmorex proposal. References to these interveners are included in the discussion that follows.
 

The Commission's concerns

 

Cost to consumers

6. The Commission considers that the applicant has not clearly justified its proposed monthly rate of $0.13 for each subscriber of BDUs that distribute the ACA service. There would be initial capital costs to establish the ACA service and provide BDUs with the equipment necessary to distribute it. However, operating costs would not likely be as high as for a specialty service. For example, ACA would not face on-going costs to obtain or produce programming.
 

Needs of the visually impaired

7. The Commission is concerned that ACA's alerts, which would be in text form, would not be of use to the visually impaired. The National Federation of the Blind objected to a proposal under which the visually impaired would pay for a service that they could not use. Though the applicant indicated that the messages would be accompanied by an audio tone that would also serve as an alert, the Commission notes that this would only be a partial solution and the cost to cable operators to implement it could be significant in some cases.
 

Coordination with over-the-air broadcasters

8. The Commission considers that there is a need for closer cooperation with over-the-air broadcasters in developing a national warning service so that the service operates as efficiently as possible and is compatible with the systems used by broadcasters. For example, broadcasters considered that the screen location of emergency messages should be coordinated with them so that closed captioning and other screen content would not disrupted.
9. Pelmorex indicated that it would be willing to establish an advisory committee to deal with issues related to the screen position of warning messages. The Commission considers that consultations with broadcasters should play an important part in developing a national warning service.
 

Problems related to regional cable distribution

10. Some cable licensees supply signals received at their head ends to a number of interconnected cable systems that cover a large area and serve a significant number of subscribers. As a result, a warning message might not be suitable for all the locations served by the interconnected systems and might even create harmful confusion. In such cases, provision would have to be made to insert warnings that would be appropriate for each service area. This would make implementation of the ACA system more expensive for BDU operators.
11. The Canadian Cable Television Association (CCTA) was concerned that the custom equipment proposed by Pelmorex would require the text messages to be added at baseband. It noted that while some of the channels within a cable head end may utilize such a signal format, many do not. This is particularly the case in situations where some signals are fed to systems on a regional basis.
12. The applicant considered that its proposed system was technically compatible with all methods of signal processing commonly used by cable operators, including regional network configurations. However, Pelmorex agreed that it would be more expensive to implement ACA in such situations and outlined plans to help reimburse regional cable operators for any additional costs that they might face in implementing the ACA system.
13. The Commission considers it essential that plans for an alert system include a specific methodology to ensure that messages inserted on interconnected systems reach only the intended audience. This should include a cost-effective solution that would allow for the insertion of warnings on signals that are not distributed at baseband.
 

Implementation on digital systems

14. The ACA proposal would initially be implemented only on channels distributed in the analog format, with a digital version to be made available within five years. The service would therefore not initially be carried on all channels received by those subscribing to digital cable service, or to subscribers of direct-to-home (DTH) satellite services or MDS services.
15. The Commission notes that the broadcasting system is moving rapidly to digital distribution. Approximately 214,000 Canadians now subscribe to digital cable program services, over a million subscribe to DTH services, and about 80,000 subscribe to MDS. The Commission considers that an application for a national alert service should include detailed plans for implementing the service on digital distribution systems as quickly as possible.
 

Conclusion

16. The Commission considers that it has jurisdiction to deal with this application to amend Pelmorex's broadcasting licences for The Weather Network/ Météomédia. It agrees with the applicant that ACA would be an enhancement to an existing licensed service, not a separate non-broadcasting service as was suggested by the CCTA.
17. The Commission agrees with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) that many conventional broadcasters provide effective alerts to their listeners and viewers and has, in the past, commended them on their efforts. However, it considers that a system similar to the one that Pelmorex proposed could effectively complement the warnings that broadcasters already offer.
18. Nevertheless, in light of its concerns expressed earlier in this decision, the Commission is of the view that more suitable proposal might be developed if broadcasters, representatives of the broadcasting distribution industry and other interested parties worked together more closely to develop a revised proposal. Such work might be done under the aegis of the existing WeatherAlert Steering Committee.
19. The Commission, therefore, by majority vote denies the application.
20. It considers that a future application for an alert service should:
 
  • provide evidence to support the proposed wholesale rate. This should include a list of all costs associated with establishing and operating the service;
 
  • include consultations with local broadcasters and distributors as part of the planning of the service; and
 
  • address the needs of the visually impaired.
21. The implementation concerns raised by the distribution industry should also be addressed by:
 
  • developing a methodology to ensure that messages inserted on interconnected systems reach only the intended audience;
 
  • finding cost effective solutions that would allow for the insertion of warnings on signals that are not distributed at baseband;
 
  • investigating issues and problems associated with implementing ACA on systems employing digital distribution; and
 
  • examining the operational, financial and technical benefits of any alternatives suggested by distributors.
  Secretary General
  This decision is available in alternative format upon request, and may also be examined at the following Internet site: www.crtc.gc.ca