I’ve been thinking a lot about the proposed CBC/Standard/Sirius subscription-based satellite radio service lately. The CRTC public hearings started this week, and details have surfaced about the CBC’s programming contributions. According to Broadcasting Notice of Public Hearing CRTC 2004-6:

The proposed service would initially offer 78 channels, four of which would be produced in Canada by the CBC. The applicant proposes to charge a basic monthly fee of $12.95.

And via Tod Maffin this week:

The first English channel will air a CBC Radio One stream (the Ottawa feed) and the second English channel will air content provided by CBC Radio 3 (cultural, youth, new media) and complimentary CBC Radio 2 content (arts and classical/world music).

Even though this proposed service will address some problems the CBC has always had (particularly coverage in remote areas), it also creates new problems. Here’s what I’m trying to figure out:

  • Is satellite radio the future distribution model for public radio?
  • Will standard terrestrial broadcast be replaced?
  • If so, how do you reconcile Sirius’s subscription model with the CBC’s mandate?

The Canadian Broadcasting Act says that the CBC should (among other things), “reflect Canada and its regions to national and regional audiences, while serving the special needs of those regions” and “be made available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available for the purpose.”

CBC Radio and Television are, right now, freely available over the airwaves, in accordance with the Broadcasting Act’s declaration that “a range of broadcasting services in English and in French shall be extended to all Canadians as resources become available.” All Canadians.

A Canadian satellite would be great, because it could cover the whole country, including areas that aren’t currently served by over-the-air CBC signals. Were it free, CBC programming would be available to all Canadians.

But I see two problems here. One, it’s not free. It’s $12.95 per month. Which is fine now, because my regular old clock radio still works fine. But what happens when they shut off the terrestrial transmitters and sell the frequencies to cell phone companies? I’ll have to pay the fee or not receive CBC Radio, which my tax dollars are paying for. Or perhaps this is a transitional strategy — run both satellite and terrestial broadcasts for a few years, then shut down the towers and make the satellite CBC channels free. That’s a little better, but I’ll still have to go buy a new radio.

The second problem is regionality. How is the CBC supposed to reflect Canada and its regions with a single Radio One channel (coming out of Ottawa, no less)? Satellite radio doesn’t really work for regional content. Where is my local news, sports, weather? I don’t care about the traffic in Ottawa.

So, how can the CBC do exclusively satellite radio and still be the CBC? To my mind, they’d have to fly their own bird, provide digital equivalents for all their existing local channels, not charge a subscription fee, and if the price hasn’t dropped considerably, subsidize the purchase of new receivers.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out. So far, I’ve not found any documents dealing with the CBC’s long-term satellite radio strategy (if one exists). I’ve just downloaded Sirius’s CRTC filings, and plan on taking a look soon.