Tag Archives: Videotron

Videotron: We’re fibre too!

The latest indication that Videotron is feeling the heat from competition by Bell Canada is that it has rebranded its Internet packages to include the word “fibre”.

Now, rather than “High Speed” or “Ultimate Speed”, the packages are being referred to as “Fibre Hybrid”. This term reflects the fact that, while the telecom company has 30,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cable, the cable that actually gets into people’s homes is still the same coaxial copper cable that’s been used for cable TV for decades.

Such a setup, in which the backbone is fibre-optic but that last connection to individual homes is a conventional line, is called fibre-to-the-node or fibre-to-the-neighbourhood. It contrasts with fibre-to-the-home, in which fibre-optic cable actually goes all the way to a person’s home, giving them access to very high data transfer rates and room to grow.

Bell Fibe, which isn’t even five years old yet, has been spreading in Montreal, offering for many the first non-satellite alternative for cable TV and high-speed Internet. We don’t know exactly how many customers it’s stolen from Videotron, but we do know that the powers that be at the Quebecor-owned company are very nervous.

Because fibre-optics is so central to Bell that it’s even in the name of the fibre-optic package, Videotron apparently decided it wanted to make sure everyone knows that it too uses fibre. Ads in newspapers boast that Videotron had a fibre network before Bell set one up.

But Videotron’s network, and much of Bell’s, isn’t really fibre. It’s FTTN, not FTTH. And both of them will need to come up with something even more buzzword-worthy when they do bring fibre right into people’s TVs. (Bell has some FTTH customers, but many with “Bell Fibe” don’t have fibre entering their homes.)

As these two companies continue their pissing contest, La Presse’s Jean-François Codère did a comparison between Bell and Videotron in terms of Internet packages. Bell comes out slightly better in some areas while for others you’re better off with Videotron (assuming Internet speed and download caps are all you care about.

It would be nice to say healthy competition is forcing both Videotron and Bell to put consumers first, but Bell just told clients it’s dramatically increasing its prices And Videotron booting its prices is a yearly occurrence.

Maybe we can just amuse ourself in the assumption that if it weren’t for competition, those price increases would be higher. But don’t hold your breath hoping for more. Cogeco just announced it’s abandoning its plans for an IP-based data link to residential subscribers, saying it’s too complicated.

Videotron’s illico iPad app: Cool, but hardly revolutionary

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Version 2.0 of Videotron’s illico iPad app was finally published on the Apple App Store on Wednesday, almost two weeks after it was announced in a big press conference at Quebecor HQ in which it was described as a revolutionary thing that would change TV forever.

As I explain in stories for The Gazette and Cartt.ca, the app doesn’t have any specific features that are particularly revolutionary, but it does bring everything together into one package. Using one interface, people can stream 70 live TV channels (assuming they’re subscribed to them), check out various free video-on-demand titles or watch programs from the Club Illico subscription video service. You don’t have to remember which program is available using which service. Just search for it and the application will find it.

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ICTV vs. MYtv: Taking sides in the fight over Videotron’s community television channel

A complaint by a group of Montreal activists against Videotron is taking on a greater significance as groups are lining up on both sides of a battle for control over Videotron’s community television service.

Last month, I wrote about ICTV, a group headed by people associated with CKUT Radio McGill and others formerly associated with Concordia’s CUTV.

After that article appeared, I was contacted by someone who wanted to set up a meeting with Isabelle Dessureault, the president of MAtv, who wanted to clear up any misconc… let’s just call a spade a spade, wanted to drive the discussion a bit more to Videotron’s favour.

Dessureault confirmed that the CRTC is not moving forward with the Videotron application for an English-language version of the MAtv community television channel, and that this process could delay the launch of that channel by a year or more. MYtv on ice became the basis for another story in The Gazette.

There was also the matter of a lawyer’s letter to ICTV from Videotron ordering it to retract statements about the company that it considered defamatory. (It doesn’t directly threaten legal action, but certainly suggests that would be the next step. Videotron confirmed the letter was sent but said “Quebecor Media is studying its options.”) ICTV refused, saying the CRTC process was the place to settle their differences of opinion.

Since then, two important organizations have backed the two sides of this battle.

ELAN backs MYtv

The English Language Arts Network, a group that supports anglophone artists in Quebec, has decided to back Videotron instead of ICTV. Executive Director Guy Rodgers and President Peter MacGibbon lay out their argument in this opinion piece published last week in The Gazette. The arguments boil down to two main points:

  1. ELAN prefers a more professional, high-quality model of community television in which artists are paid for their work instead of volunteers working for free. It believes Videotron’s model is better than ICTV’s in this regard
  2. ELAN believes that ICTV’s proposal for a single multilingual television channel would not be as good as Videotron’s proposal for two channels, one in each language.

The ICTV folks took ELAN’s stance in the measured, respectful way one expects from Montreal’s activist community: Writing an open letter with the headline “ELAN betrayed our communities by selling out community TV to PKP’s Vidéotron.” It accuses ELAN of being intentionally misleading and of supporting a “segregationist” idea of community television.

ELAN’s opinion makes sense when you consider that it represents artists, such as independent television producers, rather than the community at large. Its view has to be taken in that context. It doesn’t make them evil, and I got no impression whatsoever during their community meetings over this issue that they discouraged other people from expressing their views on the matter, nor do I think they’ve sold out to Videotron.

CACTUS backs ICTV

The other voice to take a stand here is CACTUS, the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations. The group’s executive director, Catherine Edwards, presents her group’s views in this Gazette opinion piece, which was published alongside ELAN’s.

CACTUS believes in general that community television should be taken out of the hands of cable companies, and that even if there was once a reason for cable to control community television channels, technology has made that reason obsolete.

Edwards argues that community television should be in the hands of the community, not the cable companies.

CACTUS also opposes dividing community channels by language. Among the reasons for being against this are that doing this divides the two communities, leaves no place for third languages, and allows cable companies to double the amount of money they can keep in house rather than give over to Canadian content funds.

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting also has a page with one-sided information collecting comments in favour of ICTV.

The case vs. the policy

One important thing to consider in this whole affair is the difference between whether Videotron is properly following the CRTC’s community television policy and whether that community television policy is properly written to begin with.

The policy has been revised numerous times, the latest in 2010. But there’s a lot of ambiguity there. For example, the key part of community television is community access programming, but the CRTC sets only two criteria for such programming: That the idea come from a member of the community not employed by a cable company, and that this person be involved with the programming in a significant on-camera or off-camera role.

That leaves a lot of loopholes. What if the person is an employee of a company related to a cable company? Can the cable company claim copyright over the programming produced this way?

CACTUS, ICTV and others take exception to the fact that community TV channels run by cable companies are exclusive to customers of those companies. But the CRTC has chosen not to require open distribution of such community channels.

The community television policy could change soon. The CRTC has begun a year-long process of reviewing television policy, and the cable companies and CACTUS will undoubtedly be lending their voices to that process. Until then, though, the ICTV vs. Videotron complaint will be judged on existing policy.

Videotron wants to change … kinda

In my discussions with MAtv president Isabelle Dessureault and general manager Steve Desgagné, they have been trying their best to appear reasonable about this issue. They say Videotron is trying its best to be representative of the community, that it doesn’t reject proposals for community TV programs unless they fail to meet the criteria, and that despite this dispute they are open to proposals from ICTV members. (They note that they have yet to receive any.)

Videotron admits it has gotten some things wrong, most significantly its failure to properly represent the anglophone community in Montreal (an error it is trying to fix with the MYtv application). Dessureault also says MAtv will reform some of the ways it presents information to the public, by changing its end-of-show credits to emphasize the contributions from the community and by volunteers. It also plans to create an annual report for the public that outlines their accomplishments for the year.

And Videotron plans to, by the end of the year, set up an advisory committee for MAtv that would provide feedback on programming. (It had already planned to set up such a committee for MYtv once it was approved.)

Dessureault also said MAtv will be launching a new project in June that will facilitate community contributions to television. The concept is a bit fuzzy to me, but involves a website where people can contribute ideas and content, which will then be given to someone to turn into TV shows or documentaries. The purpose is to allow people to contribute without having to commit to running a weekly show.

But on the fundamentals, there are no changes planned. Most programs are still being produced by Videotron, and Videotron retains control over programming.

Community programming isn’t easy

Dessureault stresses that getting communities involved with community TV isn’t easy, though they’re trying.

ICTV, however, argues that it has the resources to make it work. It points to CKUT, a radio station where volunteers fill an entire week’s worth of airtime without the need for repeats. It believes it can do the same on television.

The money issue

The big issue here, of course, isn’t access, it’s money. ICTV could produce hours of video and post it to YouTube. But unless it wins its battle at the CRTC, it won’t get the millions of free cable money needed to pay for it.

Cable companies have community TV channels because they’d have to spend the money anyway, and otherwise it would be outside of their control.

There’s a conspiracy theory floating around (and has been expressed by commenters on this blog) that Videotron and others use community TV for monetary profit, by charging their own community TV channels for technical services.

Dessureault says MAtv’s finances are audited, both internally and by the CRTC, and attempts to cook the books wouldn’t succeed. But she does admit that MAtv does use some of its money to pay for things provided by Quebecor. MAtv shares human resources staff with Videotron, for example, to reduce costs. It also pays rent to TVA for production space (though at “well below market rates,” Dessureault said). Dessureault said these things are a very small portion of MAtv’s budget, which she said goes mainly to programming.

The CRTC has access to MAtv’s finances, and its experts are sticklers for attempts by big companies to take liberties with finances in order to reduce their obligations. So I seriously doubt that Videotron would get away with, say, overcharging MAtv for Internet access or rent in order to suck away some of its budget.

But there’s a legitimate question to be raised over whether such expenses should be paid for by the cable company, separate from the 2% of revenues it can allocate to community programming.

That, too, may be an issue if the CRTC decides to review its community television policy.

Until then, it will be judging Videotron based on its compliance with the current policy, and that policy leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

The CRTC is accepting comments on ICTV’s complaint against Videotron until 8pm ET on April 22. You can file comments using this form. Note that all information submitted, including contact information, becomes part of the public record.

Further reading

Note: A slightly edited version of this post was published on the opinion page of The Gazette on April 23.

Videotron finally joins the iPhone club

One of many ads in Saturday papers announcing Videotron's introduction of the iPhone.

One of many ads in Saturday papers announcing Videotron’s introduction of the iPhone.

Three and a half years after launching its mobile network, Videotron has finally solved its biggest issue: Until now, you couldn’t get a plan with an iPhone.

At first, the problem was technological. The frequency spectrum Videotron acquired in the 2008 auction was in the 1700 MHz band (called the Advanced Wireless Services band), and the iPhone wasn’t compatible with that band. It wasn’t just an issue for Videotron — it also prevented the iPhone from being compatible with the T-Mobile network south of the border.

That changed last year, when Apple introduced a model of the iPhone 5 that was compatible with AWS and the T-Mobile and Videotron networks. By last fall, people could get their hands on an iPhone 5 and by adding a Videotron SIM card make it compatible with the carrier’s network.

After that, the issue stopped being a technological one and started being a legal one. Videotron didn’t have a deal to sell the iPhone, so the best it could do was encourage people to buy it at Apple stores and install a Videotron SIM card themselves.

A couple of weeks ago, in a brief and understated email (whose contents were strictly regulated by the terms of the deal between Videotron and Apple), the company announced it would start selling iPhones on March 28. On March 29, full-page ads came out in all the papers announcing the iPhone 5s was now available at Videotron retail outlets.

Not only does this mean that Videotron can join the big guys, but also that it can stop pretending that non-Apple products are just as good as Apple ones. Without the iPhone, Videotron pushed Android apps and devices, including the Google Nexus One, which was the hot new thing when the network launched. Parent company Quebecor did its best to wipe the iPhone out of its universe, even going so far as to push producers of fictional shows on TVA to replace characters’ iPhones with Android devices (Quebecor downplayed this as something similar to product placement).

All the while, it remained impatient, hoping that Apple would soon deem Videotron worthy of inclusion.

Illico TV app now available

On Monday Tuesday, Videotron will announce that the Illico TV app is available for iPhone users. The application allows subscribers to Videotron’s television service to access live TV channels and free video-on-demand shows on their iPhones. And for the most part, they can do this regardless of who their carrier is.

Using the app, which was added to the Apple app store on Friday, requires authenticating with Videotron to prove that you’re a Videotron cable TV customer, which gives you access to channels you subscribe to, including a bunch of live channel feeds.

One exception to the rule is RDS, which is the most expensive channel to get the rights to. You can access RDS’s live feed, including Canadiens games, only if you’re also a Videotron mobile customer as well. This is the result of the rights agreement between Videotron and RDS (owned by Bell Media). RDS sells its mobile rights through the mobile carriers.

Videotron’s iPhone app doesn’t allow purchases, so you can’t buy video-on-demand movies. The reason for this is simple math: Apple’s required percentage take of in-app purchases is so high (30%), that Videotron can’t make any money selling content this way.

The Illico Club Unlimited subscription video-on-demand service is also not available yet on the iPhone app.

New prices

Something that’s already making headlines is the prices that Videotron is using to sell them. Videotron is offering unlimited calling and 4GB data for $75 a month, while the Big Three are offering $110 a month for the same plans. Additionally, it’s offering the iPhone at an almost $500 discount for a 24-month plan. That means more than $20 a month of your iPhone plan with Videotron will be going just to pay off the discount you got for your device.

It’s almost as if Videotron has been waiting for this day for years.

The battle over Videotron’s community TV channel

It was supposed to be simple and non-controversial: An application by Videotron to create a second community television channel in Montreal to serve the anglophone community.

Anglophones had long complained that since Videotron bought CF Cable TV, they have not had a proper voice in community television. The CRTC even asked Videotron to do something about it. Just months before the announcement, the English Language Arts Network publicly called on Videotron to restore English community programming.

So when Videotron made its big splash about starting MYtv, the reaction seemed to be positive, at least at first. ELAN hosted a meeting in September to get input from the community, and though there were few people present, there were some tough questions for Videotron’s representatives.

Now, those questions have been formalized in a complaint to the CRTC.

The complaint, filed by a group calling itself Independent Community Television Montreal (ICTV), includes an 86-page document meticulously arguing that the programming that airs on MAtv does not meet CRTC requirements for a community channel. It argues that the CRTC should declare that MAtv is not complying with its licence conditions, and instead grand a licence to ICTV to operate a multilingual community channel that would replace both MAtv and MYtv.

I summarize the complaint in this story, which appears in Monday’s Gazette.

But as long as the story is, there’s still so much detail I had to leave out.

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Could Videotron become a national wireless company? Maybe

In what a lot of people said was a huge surprise (but was actually predicted by plenty), the end of the 700MHz wireless spectrum auction showed that Videotron bought licenses covering Canada’s four largest provinces, and everyone now assumes the company will go national, becoming that fourth big player that the government and unsatisfied Canadian cellphone customers have been hoping for.

Quebecor is forbidden by the spectrum auction rules from commenting on its future plans in order to preserve the integrity of the process and avoid collusion between bidders. So all we have from them is their press release on the subject. It includes these quotes from CEO Robert Dépatie:

“With the high-quality frequencies acquired in this auction, Videotron is now well-equipped to develop its network in the years to come and to continue offering its customers the best in wireless technology.”

“Given the way the auction unfolded, Quebecor Media could not pass up the opportunity to invest in licences of such great intrinsic value in the rest of Canada,” said Mr. Dépatie. “We now have a number of options available to us to maximize the value of our investment.”

Read into that what you will.

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Videotron doesn’t want to add ICI to analog cable, asks CRTC for exemption

Sam Norouzi in the control room at ICI's studios in Ahuntsic

Sam Norouzi in the control room at ICI’s studios in Ahuntsic

Analog cable. Remember that? According to the latest statistics from the CRTC, only 11% of television subscribers get their TV that way. For Videotron, that number is higher. According to Quebecor’s latest quarterly report, 82.9% of its television customers were digital, leaving 17.1% of them using analog-only setups.

Since about 2000, the groundwork has been built for the phasing out of analog cable. The CRTC has since licensed new television specialty channels as digital-only. In 2012, Videotron stopped selling new analog cable subscriptions. And it’s expected that within the next few years it will be phasing out its analog cable network, much as other providers are, in order to free that bandwidth for more data and high-definition channels.

I bring all of this up because of an interesting situation that’s come up. The Broadcasting Distribution Regulations, the rules that apply to cable, satellite and other television providers, have a priority list of which channels must be distributed on the basic service. At the top of that list is CBC/Radio-Canada, then educational channels, then all other local television stations, then those special services like CPAC and APTN that the CRTC requires everyone receive and pay for.

The lineup of analog cable channels hasn’t been added to in the past decade. The last new channels added to it here were APTN and Avis de recherche, because of distribution orders for those channels. And with a virtual ban on new channels being forced onto analog, it seemed destined to stay that way.

But in December, a new television station launched in Montreal. ICI, an ethnic station, began broadcasting on Channel 47. And according to the rules, it needs to be added to the systems of all cable distributors operating in Montreal, on both analog an digital.

This issue doesn’t come up often because it’s so rare that a new over-the-air television station starts up. The last real expansion of over-the-air television through new stations was in 1997, which was when Global Quebec and CJNT (what is now City Montreal) went on the air. So cable companies haven’t had to add many new services to analog cable since they started the slow move to digital.

But the rules say that Videotron needs to distribute local stations, and so it needs to put ICI on its analog grid somewhere, at least in the Montreal area.

Except Videotron says it doesn’t have the room to do that. So it has applied to the CRTC for an exception to the distribution rules that would allow it to not have to carry ICI this way.

In its submission, Videotron’s owner Quebecor Media says the commission’s clear intention is to move away from analog television distribution, and that its recent decisions have made it clear it doesn’t want to add new services to analog.

“The analog programming grids for the greater Montreal region are at their maximum capacity and no space is available to add a new station to the basic service,” Quebecor’s Peggy Tabet writes. “In fact, any additional analog channel would require the removal of a channel that’s currently distributed in this format. This type of change has important consequences at the client level and on a financial and technical level. Adding ICI to the analog basic service would result in depriving our subscribers of a service they have always had access to.”

Moreover, Videotron says, removing a service from analog cable would require a 60-day notification period, and its contracts with broadcasters do not allow Videotron to remove those channels from its analog service.

Finally, Videotron says that 93% of its customers in the greater Montreal region have digital set-top boxes, and those subscribers receive ICI in standard and high definition.

Videotron’s explanation is mostly half-true. It definitely has space limitations on its network, and adding a new analog channel would take up a lot of space. And it’s right that removing analog channels is tricky because of customer complaints as well as contractual obligations.

But Videotron isn’t absolutely prevented from adding ICI to its analog network. Assuming there was no analog channel that it could part with to make room for ICI, it could repurpose a digital channel and make it analog again. That might mean fewer HD channels, or more compressed HD channels, but it’s doable.

It would probably be more accurate to say that Videotron simply doesn’t want ICI on its analog network because it would add to its bandwidth management problems and won’t be that popular among its customers.

That kind of explanation usually doesn’t sway the CRTC. But should the commission force Videotron’s hand, requiring it to start fiddling around with an analog network it’s in the slow process of dismantling? Videotron hasn’t set a date for bringing down the analog network in Montreal. It may be a small minority that still has analog cable, but many of them do for a reason, and it will be quite a process to transition all of them at the same time. Plus there are all the people who might have a digital box on their main television but analog cable going into other TVs in the house. Those will also need to be dealt with.

I suspect the CRTC will deny Videotron’s application. But it may grant the exception if it feels that the reins of analog cable need to be let loose so the format can be put out to pasture.

ICI hasn’t commented on the application. Its general manager Sam Norouzi said it will be filing a response opposing it, but didn’t want to comment further.

Videotron’s application can be downloaded here (.zip). It’s open to comment until 8pm ET on Monday. Comments can be filed here. Note that all information provided, including contact info, goes on the public record.

UPDATE (Sept. 3): The CRTC has granted Videotron’s request, despite ICI’s objections.

Videotron customers upset about not getting new HD channels

It’s been two weeks since Videotron added new HD versions of 36 English-language channels for some customers in Montreal. But many people who live in the Montreal area were disappointed or even upset when they turned on their TVs on Dec. 4 and didn’t see the new channels they were promised.

Aside from word of mouth, the only source of information about the new channels came from an article I wrote in The Gazette last month, after a meeting with people at Videotron who explained that the new channels would be available only to people in Montreal who had next-generation Illico receivers.

Videotron itself hasn’t advertised the new channels (with the exception of Sportsnet 360, which was made available to everyone throughout the network) on its website or on other media, probably because of the difficulty in explaining who gets it and who doesn’t.

As we learned after the channels were launched, not all of Montreal has access to the new channels, regardless of which version of the Illico set-top box they have.

Why?

Because the new channels are being distributed on new frequencies that aren’t accessible to everyone.

The Montreal network is being “modernized”, using Videotron’s term for it. Head ends, which transmit the TV and Internet data on the coaxial cable lines that reach into people’s homes, are being brought closer to those homes. Instead of each serving, say, 1000 homes, they’re now serving 100 each. This is expensive, but it has a few advantages.

Because in each cell, the same data is being sent to everyone, increasing the number of cells means any data meant for only one home (video on demand, Internet data, VOIP phone data or TV channels distributed through switched video) takes up less space on the network and a channel can be reused 10 times as much. More reuse of bandwidth can mean more HD channels or faster Internet speeds.

The other thing it does is allow the network to operate on higher frequencies. In non-modernized areas, there’s an upper limit of around 800-850MHz, beyond which signals aren’t reliable enough over the distance to the homes to put digital signals there. But in modernized areas of Montreal, data can be transmitted as high as 1000 MHz (1 GHz). This adds about 20 or so new 6 MHz channels, each of which can carry multiple HD feeds. The 36 HD feeds available only to modernized Montreal are transmitted on these frequencies, with two to each 6 MHz channel.

Unfortunately, I still don’t know exactly what areas of Montreal are modernized and which are not. There is no map that I’m aware of. Instead, Videotron is asking people to call their customer service to find out if they have access.

In general, modernized areas include the West Island, the western part of Laval and bits of the north and south shores. The eastern part of Montreal and other areas of the region are not yet modernized, and there’s no word on when they will be.

If you want to find out if you’re in it, the easiest way to do so is to put your address into this form. If you see ABC Spark, Animal Planet and Discovery Science listed as HD (the “HD” will be in red), then you’re in a modernized area. If you don’t, you’re not.

But at least you still got the fireplace channels (552 and 553) for another few weeks.

Videotron makes its biggest HD jump yet, adding 36 English HD channels

To those who have long complained about the lack of English high-definition channels on Videotron, finally some good news: The TV distributor is going a long way in playing catchup to its rivals, upgrading 36 of its English-language channels to high definition, including all of its Sportsnet channels and all of its Movie Network channels.

There’s a catch, though. For Montrealers, these channels will only be available to those with next-generation Illico set-top boxes, which have been used for the past couple of years. The older Scientific Atlanta or PACE boxes (what Videotron calls “Illico 1” internally) can’t decode the MPEG-4-encoded signals that carry the new channels, so they won’t be able to access them in HD.

The exception is Sportsnet 360 (formerly The Score). That channel, whose viewers have long demanded an HD version, will be available to all receivers throughout Videotron’s service area.

Some of the channels (the Movie Network channels, Sportsnet World, U.S. superstations and Disney Jr.) will also be available in the Gatineau/Rockland region, for all HD subscribers regardless of box type.

Outside of Gatineau and Montreal, it’s just Sportsnet 360 and the French version of Disney Jr.

If it sounds complicated, it is. Even Videotron’s vice-president got it wrong a couple of times trying to explain it to me.

The problem is that Videotron’s cable network is nearing saturation, with a combination of analog channels, digital channels, video-on-demand channels and channels used for Internet data. HD channels use up a lot of space (though not as much as an analog channel) and there isn’t much of it left.

So the company is switching to a new compression system. In Montreal, all the new channels (except Sportsnet 360) will be encoded using MPEG-4 instead of MPEG-2, which dramatically lowers the bitrate for each channel. This is why the next-generation boxes are needed. Existing channels are not changing, so if you have an older box you’ll still get the same channels you do now.

This move combines with a very expensive network modernization project that has brought head-ends closer to homes and reduced the size of their cells, both of which are designed to use bandwidth more efficiently to offer more channels and faster Internet speeds.

But still, some HD channels are missing from Videotron’s lineup, and customers who want them will certainly complain that they weren’t added here. They include:

  • CTV News Channel
  • The Comedy Network
  • The Weather Network
  • Documentary
  • BNN
  • MSNBC
  • BBC World News
  • Al Jazeera English
  • Gol TV
  • TVO
  • Action
  • Time-shifting channels

Plus channels that aren’t on Videotron even in standard definition, like:

  • TSN Habs
  • Disney XD
  • Fox News Channel
  • Bloomberg TV
  • Russia Today
  • NASA TV
  • Smithsonian Channel
  • HIFI
  • RadX
  • Hollywood Suite
  • Big Ten Network
  • CBS Sports
  • CTV Two (don’t ask me why, but people complain that it’s not there)

Feel free to add suggestions below. I should note that Videotron does keep note of new channel requests, and will base their decision to take a channel based in no small part on consumer demand. So if you want something, ask for it.

Videotron's vice-president of content operations and public affairs, Isabelle Dessureault, who is also in charge of MAtv and the MYtv community channel project.

Videotron’s vice-president of content operations and public affairs, Isabelle Dessureault, who is also in charge of MAtv and the MYtv community channel project.

The new HD channels prompted me to write a feature story that appears in Saturday’s Gazette about Videotron’s relationship with anglophones. Isabelle Dessureault, Videotron’s vice-president of content operations and public affairs, told me that the company is under-performing among anglos and has made a stronger effort to improve its offering for them and better compete with … well, you know who. It finally came to terms with AMC after a long negotiation, added premium channels like FX Canada and Super Channel, and has asked the CRTC for permission to launch an English-language community channel in Montreal.

Through our discussion, I got Dessureault to explain, in general terms, why it’s difficult for Videotron to get English content. It’s not for lack of wanting, and technical issues aren’t the only limitation.

Dessureault said that for TV channels, the problems start at the negotiating table. Broadcasters, particularly American ones, demand minimum subscription guarantees or variable wholesale rates. But that’s particularly difficult for Videotron because of it’s custom channel packaging strategy. Allowing people to choose their own channels and not pay for ones they don’t want means the people who own those channels get less money. With 80% of new clients choosing custom packages, minimum subscription guarantees don’t make sense. And variable rates means Videotron has even less of an incentive to include less popular services.

The Canadian government has said it wants to move toward freedom of choice in TV packaging. The CRTC has repeatedly indicated it wants to encourage this as well. And some providers, particularly smaller ones, are trying to do just that. But it’s not that easy with the contracts that are signed with various broadcasters.

Dessureault said there’s only so much that can be done about the problem. The CRTC has no jurisdiction in the United States, so it can’t force CNN, AMC, Spike TV or A&E to accept contract conditions they don’t want. But she said that if more Canadian distributors moved toward so-called pick-and-pay systems, the big U.S. players might accept no-guarantee channel carriage as the cost of doing business in this country, and negotiations might go easier in the future.

There are also non-linear content distribution methods, like Videotron’s new Illico Club Unlimited, its answer to Netflix. The company admitted when it launched that it had very little to offer to anglophones. The focus was on French-language content, where Netflix is weak. Dessureault said she wants to see more English content on the service, but explained why the business case for it is bad.

Simply put, English content in a subscription video-on-demand service is six times more expensive to acquire than French-language content. And Videotron has far fewer anglophone clients than francophone. Added to the fact that Videotron just doesn’t have the same financial resources as Netflix to acquire content, and it just doesn’t make sense in the short term to buy English content for this platform.

Of course Videotron made a 15% profit margin, or $15 million in profit last year in TV service, so don’t cry for them too much.

UPDATE (Dec. 4): The channels are all live now, along with two holiday fireplace channels that are part of the Galaxie service. They’re on channel 552 (with francophone holiday music) and 553 (with crackling sounds). Videotron hasn’t created a map or anything to show which people have access to which channels where. Instead, it’s asking people to contact customer service and is telling them individually.

New HD channels

For all digital HD subscribers

  • 711: Rogers Sportsnet 360

For all digital HD subscribers in Gatineau and Rockland, Ont., and subscribers in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 685: Rogers Sportsnet World
  • 813: MExcess
  • 815: MFest
  • 814: MFun
  • 831: WGN
  • 833: WPIX
  • 832: WSBK
  • 834: KTLA
  • 759: Disney Jr. (English)

Only for digital HD subscribers in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 715: ABC Spark
  • 755: Animal Planet
  • 756: Discovery Science
  • 760: Family Channel
  • 757: H2
  • 741: HLN
  • 735: Investigation Discovery
  • 731: Lifetime
  • 736: Movietime
  • 667: MuchMusic
  • 718: Nat Geo Wild
  • 714: OLN
  • 818: Peachtree
  • 673: Slice
  • 682: Sportsnet Ontario
  • 683: Sportsnet Pacific
  • 684: Sportsnet West
  • 817: TMN Encore 2
  • 671: Teletoon (English)
  • 716: The Fight Network
  • 745: Travel + Escape
  • 819: Turner Classic Movies
  • 709: W Movies
  • 721: W Network
  • 656: Wild TV
  • 672: YTV

For all digital HD subscribers outside Montreal, and those in Montreal with next-generation Illico boxes

  • 646: Disney Jr. (French)

ELAN hosting public meeting about Videotron community channel MYtv

As the CRTC considers whether it should allow Videotron to launch a second community television channel for Montreal, this one in English, the group that has been pushing for exactly that has called a public meeting to get input from that community.

ELAN, the English-Language Arts Network, is meeting Monday, Sept. 23, at SHIFT Space, 1190 St. Antoine St. W., at 7pm. People seeking to attend are asked to RSVP to admin@quebec-elan.org.

I spoke with Guy Rodgers, ELAN’s executive director. He told me that the group had “started to think about this in 2010 when the CRTC was revising its community TV policy.” The CRTC suggested they speak with Videotron, which they hadn’t. Rodgers said that, at the time, the cable provider was “totally uninterested in anything to deal with the English community.”

But in the past few years, Rodgers believes the commission has been more concerned with things like official languages equality. This makes sense considering recent decisions. The only two new services to get mandatory carriage were one that offered a French version of an existing English service, and one devoted to representing francophones outside Quebec. Other decisions made during acquisitions, such as Rogers’s acquisition of CJNT and Bell’s acquisition of Astral, also included commitments to support the English minority in Quebec. During these recent proceedings, ELAN and other groups like the Quebec English-language Production Council have been more present.

This year, with Videotron’s licence coming up for renewal, ELAN decided to give another push to the English channel idea. “We thought we had pretty compelling arguments,” he said.

At Videotron, there was a complete turnaround on the issue. A new team, under the direction of Isabelle Dessureault, was “completely receptive to the idea” of producing more for the English community when they met this spring. (Whether that has anything to do with Bell’s proposed English community programming for Montreal is a good question.)

Rodgers said they proposed a separate channel in English, rather than something like having one or two programs on MAtv be in English. After thinking about it for a bit, Videotron’s team came back and said this was a good idea and one they wanted to move on quickly.

The CRTC is still accepting comments on Videotron’s proposed channel until Oct. 7. But ELAN wants to get the community involved from the ground level. The MYtv channel would have 21 hours of original local programming a week, of which 11 hours would be “access” programming coming from the community. ELAN wants to make sure that there’s enough demand for that kind of access programming, and share that with the CRTC.

Rodgers said representatives of MAtv will be present to present the plan and answer questions, and then those present can discuss it.

“We really want community involvement in this process,” he said.

For an idea of what kind of service is being proposed, you can see this promotional video for MAtv’s fall season which was just published:

Picture an English version with many of the same themes: public affairs, local culture, humour, young up-and-coming personalities, lots of talk shows.

UPDATE (Oct. 2): ELAN has an opinion piece in The Gazette arguing in favour of the MYtv project.

Videotron applies to create English-language community TV channel for Montreal

Videotron wants to finally create an English version of MAtv.

On Thursday, the CRTC published an application from the cable company to amend its licence to allow for a second community television channel, this one in English, in greater Montreal.

You can read the application here (.zip) or my Gazette story here or Videotron’s press release here.

Called MYtv, the English channel would, like the French one, be a linear high-definition channel with 24/7 programming and available for free to all Videotron customers in the greater Montreal area (analog and digital). As a community channel, it would not be permitted to air advertising (except for sponsorship messages), and at least half of its programming must originate from the community (as of September 2014). Videotron said the plan is to produce 21 hours of original programming a week, with a paid staff of 30 and a budget of $6 million a year.

As La Presse notes, the money being spent on MYtv will come out of the money being given to the Canada Media Fund and the Fonds Quebecor every year.

To get an idea of what this channel might broadcast, you can check out MAtv’s schedule.

Under the CRTC’s rules for cable distributors, the larger companies must spend five per cent of their gross revenues on Canadian programming. But they can devote two of those five to a community television channel, which most do. Videotron is seeking to devote an additional two to an English community channel, following a precedent set by Rogers in Ottawa and Moncton. Bell is also asking to fund its proposed English community television service in Montreal the same way.

In other words, this wouldn’t really be new spending by Videotron, nor would it take away from MAtv’s budget. It would simply re-allocate funds that went to Canadian programming to create a new channel that would be exclusive to its customers.

The application takes a bit of a shot at Bell, whose Fibe community channels are only available on demand (emphasis theirs):

Contrairement à la demande effectuée par Bell visant de la programmation communautaire disponible seulement via la vidéo sur demande, la TCLA [télévision communautaire de langue anglaise] est une chaîne linéaire avec un canal dédié en haute définition, en plus d’être disponible sur la vidéo sur demande, conformément à la PR 2010-622 [the CRTC’s community television policy] dans laquelle le Conseil encourage les EDR [entreprises de distribution de radiodiffusion, i.e. cable TV companies] à rendre la programmation de leurs canaux communautaires accessibles sur leur service de vidéo sur demande. Bien entendu, la programmation de la TCLA sera aussi disponible sur Internet via illico web. Vidéotron offrira donc une fenêtre de diffusion optimale à la communauté visée.

In June, two Quebec anglophone community groups, the English-Language Arts Network and the Quebec Community Groups Network, said they would ask the CRTC to require Videotron to launch an English-language community channel as part of its licence renewal (which was supposed to come by Aug. 31, but Videotron’s licence has been extended a year to Aug. 31, 2014, to give the CRTC more time to process it).

Isabelle Dessureault, president of MAtv, posted on Twitter that the plan is to launch the English channel next spring. She will be in charge of both channels, to reduce administrative costs, but each side would have separate creative teams including separate content directors. The English channel would run out of a separate floor in the Montreal TVA building from the French one, with separate editing facilities, but the two would share some technical resources, she said.

Dessureault said there are no plans for English community channels elsewhere in Quebec, because she’s “not sure it would be viable” for smaller communities. But the Montreal channel could be distributed to those areas for the benefit of anglophones there.

The CRTC is accepting comments on this application until Oct. 7. You can file them on CRTC’s website here. Note that all information provided, including contact information, goes on the public record.

UPDATE (Oct. 7): Three Gazette opinion pieces about MYtv by various interest groups: The Quebec Community Groups Network, the English-Language Arts Network, and the Canadian Association of Community Television Users and Stations.

Videotron expands HD lineup, but still has a long way to go

On Wednesday, Videotron added three new high-definition channels to its digital cable lineup: Canal Savoir (622), TLC (665) and History (674). This is another small step in the improvement of Videotron’s HD offering, but still leaves it well behind competitors Bell and Shaw.

There are two reasons why Videotron’s English-language HD channel lineup is so far behind: First, because most of its customers are francophone, it puts a priority on French-language HD channels. (And, indeed, it’s hard to justify investing in an HD offering in this province unless you have carriage on Videotron.) That’s why it has VRAK.tv and not YTV; MusiquePlus and Musimax but not MuchMusic; LCN but not CTV News Channel; Canal Vie, Moi & Cie and CASA but not Slice; TFO but not TVO, etc.

The second reason is that Videotron is still supporting an analog cable system, which uses as many as 54 6 MHz channels, limiting how many new HD channels it can add. While Videotron stopped selling new analog cable subscriptions to residential customers a year ago, it hasn’t begun dismantling the network yet. Once it does pull the plug, those 54 channels can translate into as many as 162 high-definition channels (or more likely some mix of HD channels, SD channels, video on demand channels and more bandwidth for cable Internet).

In the meantime, it’s rearranging channels, expanding into higher frequencies and doing other things to squeeze in a few more HD channels every few months as it launches new services and upgrades some existing channels.

So what should be next on Videotron’s list? Here are the channels that are available in HD and that at least one competitor has added to its HD lineup:

Movie channels: Hollywood Suite (WB, MGM, AXN, Sony)*, Movie Network channels (MExcess, MFun, MFest) Movietime, Sundance Channel, SuperChannel* (it’s coming soon), Turner Classic Movies, W Movies

Entertainment channels: ABC Spark, Bold, Cartoon Network, CMT, Comedy, Cosmo TV, Game Show Network, Lifetime, OutTV, MuchMusic, Teletoon (En/Fr), W Network

Educational/reality channels: Animal Planet, Discovery Science, Documentary, E!, EQHD*, HiFi*, H2, Investigation Discovery, NatGeo Wild, OLN, radX*, Slice, Travel + Escape, TVO, Wild TV

News and information channels: Bloomberg TV*, BNN, CTV News Channel, HLN, MSNBC

Sports channels: Big Ten*, CBS Sports*, Fight Network, NFL RedZone*, Sportsnet 360, Sportsnet Ontario/West/Pacific, Sportsnet World, TSN Habs*, World Fishing Network

Family/children’s channels: Family, Disney Jr. (En/Fr), Disney XD*, Nickelodeon*, Treehouse, YTV

Canadian superstations: CHCH*, CHEK*, NTV

U.S. superstations: Peachtree, WGN, WPIX, WSBK, KTLA

Third-language channels: OMNI

*Channels aren’t carried in SD either

I’ve been told that there’s a plan to add SuperChannel to Videotron’s lineup soon, in SD and HD. (SuperChannel must be distributed by providers outside Quebec, but there’s no obligation here, despite SuperChannel’s previous complaints.)

Here are my personal top 10 (in no particular order) for HD channels Videotron should be adding soon:

  • Movie Network Channels: Right now Videotron distributes only the main Movie Network feed and HBO Canada in HD, while most of its competitors also carry the three other feeds. Considering how expensive TMN is on cable bills, this should be a priority.
  • Hollywood Suite: Adding this package of channels would go a long way toward improving Videotron’s HD movie lineup
  • Sportsnet 360: The channel formerly known as The Score is among the most requested to add in HD. And Videotron has said repeatedly it plans to do so soon. It’s even added a channel to its system, but for some reason it’s not live yet.
  • Sportsnet World: Like with The Movie Network, this channel deserves an upgrade if only because of the high price of subscribing to it.
  • TSN Habs: Is there really any doubt that you have customers that want to watch Canadiens games in English? I don’t know if this is Bell’s fault or yours, but it’s time to bury the hatchet.
  • The Comedy Network: Comedy was a bit slower than movies and drama to make the transition to HD, but it’s there now, and there’s enough content that it’s worth upgrading Comedy to HD. When The Colbert Report moves off of CTV in the fall and goes “Exclusive to Comedy”, expect demand to grow.
  • MuchMusic: The fact that this isn’t already in HD is very surprising. Both MusiquePlus and Musimax have been in HD for a long time now. It’s well past time.
  • YTV: Similarly to MuchMusic, this is one of Canada’s oldest specialty channels, has a lot of original programming and has provided an HD feed for more than two years now.
  • CTV News Channel: It’s the only Canadian all-news channel that Videotron doesn’t carry in HD, and though it was slow to upgrade to HD (only launching in 2012), it provides enough original HD content to justify an HD channel.
  • At least one CW channel: Whether it’s New York’s WPIX, Chicago’s WGN or Los Angeles’s KTLA, which Videotron distributes in SD, the network produces a good enough block of original programming to qualify. And while some of that programming has been picked up by Canadian stations, much of it hasn’t.

But those are just my suggestions. What are your priorities? Which channels are you pissed off they haven’t added or upgraded yet?

Quebecor, Rogers announce wireless network sharing deal

An odd thing to announce at 8:45pm, but Quebecor just sent out a press release saying they’ve come to a 20-year deal with Rogers to create a shared LTE wireless network in Quebec and Ottawa.

I don’t know much more than what’s in the release: The two companies will pool their resources to create a shared network, but maintain their operational independence. This deal follows a similar one between Telus and Bell to share their LTE network.

There are some side-effects to this. For one, Quebecor hints at expanding its handset lineup. Since the only one people care about is the iPhone, I’ve asked if this is the plan. I’ll let you know what they say.

The deal also includes an option for Rogers to purchase Videotron’s unused AWS spectrum in greater Toronto for $180 million. This is important in the context of other new wireless players like Mobilicity and Wind Mobile deciding putting themselves up for sale. Mobilicity has already agreed to a sale to Telus and Wind may also sell to one of the three major incumbents. A partnership between Videotron and Rogers adds to the impression that Canada simply isn’t large enough for more competition in wireless.

Or it might not.

Videotron’s Netflix isn’t for anglos

Videotron CEO Robert Depatie introduces the new Illico Club Unlimited

Videotron CEO Robert Depatie introduces the new Illico Club Unlimited

They sent us an invitation, even had English versions of their press release printed out, but they might as well not have. Videotron’s “Illico Club Unlimited” is about as interesting to an anglophone audience as a free dinner with Guy A. Lepage.

The Netflix-like service, which was shown off to the media on Thursday at Quebecor headquarters, will have almost a thousand movies (I couldn’t get an exact number, but around 800-900), about 20 television series, plus children’s programming and concerts. But it’s all in French. Any English titles are actually bilingual ones, and even then represent only about 10% of the initial offering.

The plan to focus on the French market makes sense. According to a recent monitoring report, about 21% of anglophones in Canada had a Netflix subscription, versus only 5% of francophones. With Netflix Canada’s French offering very poor, now’s the time to launch such a service, before Netflix has a chance to catch up.

But for anglophone Videotron users, it probably won’t be worth it. Instead, an $8 Netflix subscription makes more sense than a $10 subscription to Videotron’s service on top of everything you’re already paying them.

You can sign up for a free trial month of Illico Club Unlimited here.

Videotron finally adding AMC

Videotron President of Consumer Market Manon Brouillette announced the deal with AMC as an aside during the launch of a new video on-demand service on Thursday.

Videotron President of Consumer Market Manon Brouillette announced the deal with AMC as an aside during the launch of a new video on-demand service on Thursday.

In the first draft of my story, I’d written “more than two years.” In fact, it’s been more than three. More than three years since Bell TV and Shaw Direct added the U.S. pay TV channel AMC to their lineups in the fall of 2009.

It was back in the fall of 2010 that Bill Brownstein wrote a column in The Gazette about the anger Videotron’s customers have had over the lack of access to the channel.

Now, finally, the long wait for the channel that brings us Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead is almost over. Videotron announced on Thursday, during a press conference to launch its new Netflix-like service, that it is adding AMC to its TV lineup within the next few days.

It was almost a passing reference, a by-the-way mention by Videotron President of Consumer Market Manon Brouillette while she did a demo of the video-on-demand service. Compared to the written press releases I was given announcing upgrades to Internet speeds and the fact that its next-generation Illico boxes had reached 500,000 subscribers, the AMC announcement was remarkably low-key.

AMC has been, by a long shot, the most requested new channel among Videotron’s clients (a quick check of their Facebook page or Twitter mentions can confirm this), and it’s been clear for months now that they have been trying to negotiate a deal to carry the network.

Brouillette was vague with me when I asked why it took so long, saying that Videotron is a regional player and there were financial issues. Whether it’s that AMC demanded too high a per-subscriber wholesale rate or something else like a high minimum penetration rate, we might never know. But now they have it, and Brouillette made it clear through both her words and her body language that this was a long, difficult process that has finally come to a happy end.

There’s no exact launch date yet, but it should be some time within the next two weeks, Brouillette said. AMC will launch in SD, HD as well as on demand. Packaging and pricing details are also not known (she said she wanted to wait until launch to announce them), but as a pay TV service I would not expect it to be cheap.

With the sixth season of Mad Men starting on April 7, fans of the show on Videotron will be able to watch it as it airs. For fans of The Walking Dead, whose third season is airing now, the launch date can’t come fast enough.

It’s here, and it’s everywhere

UPDATE (March 1): AMC is now live, on channel 209 in SD and 809 in HD.

It’s being added to the following packages:

  • Anglo
  • Telemax
  • Telemax+
  • Mega
  • Superstations (KTLA, WGN etc.)
  • The Movie Network (which also includes HBO Canada and FX Canada)

It’s not being added à la carte.

The fact that it’s in so many preassembled packages but not à la carte suggests that AMC demanded a high penetration rate as well as a high wholesale cost. This would explain why Videotron took so long to come to a deal. Unlike its competitors, Videotron offers à la carte selection of channels, and it’s not a fan of forcing channels (particularly expensive English-language ones) on all its customers.

The channel is on a free preview until May 31. It’s also available on demand on Channel 900. Right now that channel has just the three latest episodes of The Walking Dead (in SD), for fans to catch up before this week’s episode. The VOD channel is free for anyone with AMC, including those just benefitting from the free preview.