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Bell targets cord-cutters with new ‘Alt TV’ service

The number of Canadians subscribing to TV services has been steadily declining.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

This may be the new golden age of television, but the number of Canadians actually subscribing to TV services has been steadily declining.

BCE Inc. is trying to push back on that trend with a cheaper, app-based service that offers live television without the frills of a traditional set-top box experience.

After teasing its launch last month, the Montreal-based communications company is now revealing the details of "Alt TV." The new service, which BCE's Bell Canada division is launching Monday, will let customers watch regular TV programming on their smartphones, home computers and streaming devices such as Apple TV.

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Wade Oosterman, group president of Bell Canada, says the intent is to win new business from people who might not even own a TV set but still want to watch live events, sports and news on their laptops or tablets.

"There are folks – I would say, primarily singles and couples living in condos – they may not have a traditional television service, but they still enjoy good programming. This product is really aimed at them," he said in an interview.

At $15 per month for the entry-level package of about 30 channels, it's also meant for cost-conscious customers wary of bloated telecom bills. However, Alt TV customers must also subscribe to Bell's home Internet service (to start, it will only be available to those with unlimited data plans and download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second).

Telus Corp. recently introduced a similar product, priced at $20 per month, for its Internet customers in Alberta and British Columbia. ("Pik TV" also requires subscribers to purchase a $100 set-top box that they must install themselves.)

"I think it's going to be great for value-seekers," Telus CEO Darren Entwistle said last week, noting it will help the Vancouver-based company compete against both online streaming products as well as its cable TV rival Shaw Communications Inc.

Lots of Canadians still do have traditional cable, satellite or Internet-protocol television (IPTV) subscriptions, but the numbers are steadily declining rather than growing with the population. According to the federal broadcast regulator, in 2015, there were 11.2 million households with a TV subscription, down from 11.5 million in 2012.

Telephone companies like Bell and Telus launched IPTV products almost a decade ago, allowing them to compete with cable operators for TV customers who weren't interested in satellite options. As IPTV became more advanced, customers were drawn to features like the ability to record, pause and watch TV on different devices.

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But growth in IPTV subscriptions is also slowing as customers turn to online options like Netflix and cable competitors are finally starting to hit back with next-generation television platforms of their own that have features similar to IPTV.

Bell added 22,000 Fibe TV customers in the first quarter of the year, down from 48,000 in the same period a year earlier. Telus doesn't break out IPTV numbers from its overall TV subscriber base, which includes satellite subscribers, but it added 7,000 TV customers in the period, a 36-per-cent decrease from the first quarter of 2016.

With their new services, Bell and Telus hope to win business from people who never would have subscribed to a regular television package. But they also want to protect their existing base of TV subscribers by limiting the features on the less expensive offerings.

For example, Alt TV won't come with features such as the ability to record, pause or restart live shows. Users will only be able to stream content on up to two devices at once and the picture quality won't be as good as on Bell's regular Fibe TV service.

The new service also requires some level of technological comfort – you have to understand how to stream it on one of your own devices and a Bell technician won't visit your home to set it up for you (which is a cost savings for the company).

Alt TV will only be available where Bell has a broadcast licence and has purchased content rights. "It's delivered over our own private managed network, not the open Internet," Mr. Oosterman said, explaining how he sees the service as different from a live-TV streaming product Toronto startup VMedia Inc. tried to launch last year. Bell fought that service in court and won.

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It will initially offer Alt TV to Internet customers in Ontario and Quebec and will later expand to the Atlantic provinces and Manitoba. The packages, which will include the ability to add on sports and other specialty channels, are all about $10 per month cheaper than Bell's traditional Fibe TV options. Bell says it will consider expanding the offer to customers who do not subscribe to unlimited Internet packages at a later date.

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About the Author
Telecom Reporter

Christine Dobby covers the Canadian telecom industry for The Globe and Mail. Before joining the Globe in May 2014 she reported for the Financial Post for three years, most recently writing about telecom and media. She has also reported for the Toronto Star and New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. More

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