A decision by the Canadian Radio-television & Telecommunications Commission is expected before the end of the year which will set the ground rules and license one, two or all of the three direct-to-home satellite TV applicants.
The major players are:
* ExpressVu, owned jointly by Canada’s biggest telecommunications company, BCE, satellite equipment manufacturer Tee-Comm Electronics and Canada’s largest broadcaster, WIC Western Intl. Communications and its subsidiary, Canadian Satellite Communications.
* Power DirecTv Inc., owned 80% by Montreal-based Power Corp. of Canada and 20% by a unit of GM Hughes Electronics.
* HomeStar, owned 80% by a consortium of cable companies led by Shaw Communications and 20% by the U.S. DTH operator, PrimeStar.
Just how many DTH services the small Canadian market can support is a matter of some debate. ExpressVu argues that two is the limit. HomeStar claims there’s room for three. “No way” can the market support three, says Ted Rogers, president of cable giant Rogers Communications, which has opted not to participate in the HomeStar application.
Estimates put the number of C-band satellite dish owners in Canada at 450,000, but there is no assurance that they will switch to the new digital DTH services. Industry forecasts put the number of Canadian DTH subscribers at 1.2 million by the year 2002, although HomeStar says the market will grow to 3 million homes in a decade.
With nearly 8 million subscribers, cable has unchallengable market power and the clout to force every program supplier to adopt its General Instruments Digicipher digital technology, which also has been chosen by HomeStar. Both ExpressVu and Power DirecTv have selected different and incompatible technologies, TV-COM and DSS respectively. If cable can impose its technology as the standard, other DTH operators will have to pay their own costs of digitization, uplinking and transmission, effectively doubling their costs.
“So, how do you compete?” Power DirecTv chairman Joel Bell asks. “The short answer is, you don’t. The advantaged cable competitor can cut prices and squeeze you out. The disadvantaged competitor, DTH, must content itself as a higher-cost alternative in the limited, cable-unserved market.”
Bell has proposed a solution – spreading the costs over the entire distribution system to cover the $12.5 million disparity.
Although some CRTC commissioners recognize the structural impediment to competition, the CRTC may not be inclined to fix it.
Early last year, it granted the predecessor of ExpressVu an exemption from licensing requirements under a ruling that set out criteria custom-made for the all-Canadian consortium. Under pressure from Power DirecTv, the federal government ordered the CRTC to conduct a proper hearing process and to set up a framework for a competitive DTH market.
There will be little beside the number of PPV channels to differentiate the Canadian DTH offerings from each other or from cable, because the CRTC dictates which services are carried.