CRTC: Videotron’s Unlimited Music program is illegal

In a big step toward the principle of net neutrality, the CRTC today established policies about differential pricing of Internet data (both wireless and wired) and ruled that a Videotron promotion that offers free streaming of music from selected music streaming services is against the rules.

The Videotron promotion in question is called Unlimited Music, which it debuted in August 2015. And the way it worked was it reached agreements with several music providers like Spotify and Google Play and Apple Music and exempted that data from its data caps for premium data plans. People with those higher-end plans could stream as much music as they wanted and never worry about busting their data caps.

But even though just about anyone was invited to join the program, it wasn’t automatic. And radio stations were not invited to join in.

It took minutes for net neutrality advocates to say this was wrong. I literally came out of the press conference announcing it and was on the phone with the head of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre who immediately said it was against the rules. But it took a year and a half for the CRTC process to unfold to declare it so.

Videotron said at the time it believed that because it wasn’t giving undue preference to its own music service, that the program was legal. It was mistaken.

The CRTC’s decision not only makes Unlimited Music illegal, but any plan from any provider that treats data differently depending on where it’s going or what kind of data it is. So a plan that offered no data but free access to Facebook, or a plan that didn’t count email downloads toward the data cap, those are now illegal.

There are some exceptions. One is for administrative functions. If you’re checking with your provider how much data you’ve used up on your plan, that could be exempted from data charges. Another is for “content-agnostic” stuff, like charging different rates depending on different times of day. So long as everything on the Internet gets treated the same, it’s OK.

The commission also leaves the door open to other exceptions opening up, and providers applying for pre-approval of new ideas. CRTC staff tell me such applications would go through the usual application process.

Otherwise, the commission will use guidelines established in its policy to evaluate (after the fact, following complaints) whether a service or program is compliant. These include whether the pricing is offered only on certain data plans, whether any money exchanges hands with third parties, how exclusive the offer is for certain services or subscribers, and “impact on Internet openness and innovation.”

Under the CRTC’s analysis, Unlimited Music did not meet the criteria of agnostic treatment of data, lack of exclusivity, and lack of negative impact on Internet openness and innovation. And there were no exceptional circumstances to warrant an exception to the rules.

So Videotron has until July 19 to bring Unlimited Music into compliance with the rules. But there’s likely no way to do so, so expect it to be withdrawn.

To be clear, this decision relates to data pricing only. Promotions like Rogers offering free Spotify subscriptions to certain users are still legal. But Rogers must treat the data from Spotify like any other Internet data. It can’t exempt that data from its data caps. (And it doesn’t.)

UPDATE: Videotron says it’s disappointed in the decision, and will analyze it in the coming days to figure out how to respond. In the meantime, the Unlimited Music offer remains in effect until further notice, and it promises to keep subscribers up to date.

5 thoughts on “CRTC: Videotron’s Unlimited Music program is illegal

  1. Brett

    I don’t see why the CRTC sees this a illegal. In the US T-Mobile offers unlimited video streaming without using data. Very similar to what Videotron was doing for music.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t see why the CRTC sees this a illegal. In the US T-Mobile offers unlimited video streaming without using data.

      The FCC in the United States is taking a different approach to net neutrality rules.

      Reply
  2. Brodie

    I’m pretty sure that what they mean by this is that you can have unlimited plans for Music but it would have to include all and any music, not just from a couple “providers”.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      you can have unlimited plans for Music but it would have to include all and any music, not just from a couple “providers”.

      From the decision:

      When consumers subscribe to a wireless data plan, they do so not just to access music services, but to gain access to all content available on the Internet. The functions performed by Videotron to establish data connectivity and provide transport over its network are the same regardless of whether the content being transported is part of Unlimited Music, other musical content, or any other content.

      Reply
  3. gelu88

    “So Videotron has until July 19 to bring Unlimited Music into compliance with the rules. But there’s likely no way to do so, so expect it to be withdrawn.”

    Given that Music Unlimited has been in operation for 2 years now, we know that Videotron’s network can handle a small amount of data being used continuously by it’s users and not have congestion issues.

    Music streaming is usually a 128kbps stream.

    So in terms of networking, they’ve demonstrated that they could allow unlimited 128kbps data transfers if they wanted to.

    This is similar to what Wind/Freedom mobile offers. They have 4/6/8gig plans at full speed that includes “unlimited” data at 256 kbps afterwards.

    It’s much too slow for video or rich media websites, but more than enough for certain apps to ping servers, email, maps, google searches.

    Videotron could enable that sort of thing quite easily, and I think it would be a huge competitive advantage. It basically replaces the overage fee model with a “slow but free and available ” model. Perhaps clients could still pay to get more full speed data? That way they don’t lose all of the revenue they get from overage fees.

    Another even better model is what all 4 US carriers have transitioned to in the past few months.

    All 4 offer “unlimited” plans that have ~20gigs of full speed 4G LTE data, after which the speed stays high but the data is set to the lowest priority on the network. As long as there is no congestion it’s true unlimited, but once activity picks up you’re the first one to get slowed down.

    That sort of thing (if perhaps not 20gigs) would be much better for consumers and also better reflect the networking reality of how data congestion works.

    Just 2 points of comparison. But given how many people loved Videotron’s music feature, and their desire to take the market share from the other 3, they might have reason to do something like this.

    Reply

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