After more than 30 years in the Canadian communications sector, arguing both for and against foreign ownership of telecommunications and broadcasting companies depending on my employer, I am firmly of my own independent view that the time has come to open up our system and allow foreign investment.
Foreign capital will bring much-needed venture capital, jobs, consumer choice and enormous cost savings. More importantly, it will create real competition for the handful of companies that now control every aspect of Canadian telecommunications and broadcasting. Oligarchies do not need protection; they simply need competition. Why is it that some of our major national broadcast and telecom companies continue to lobby Ottawa to block out certain channels and services rather than working toward offering strategic partnerships or real alternatives? Oh, the merits of protection.
Why have we not created the likes of Groupon, Google, Netflix and eBay in Canada? Are we not the most advanced consumer new-media adaptors in the G8? One would assume that when a country has the fastest and most adaptable consumers to modern media, we would have invented a few of the world's leading websites. Why do we not have one television network or specialty TV network that is carried around the world, despite having had the highest and most advanced cable penetration of any market in the world for three decades?
Why is it that we pay more for cable, wireless and Internet services than many Third World countries, let alone the United States and Britain? Why is it that the launch of many new technologies are delayed in Canada, forcing consumers to cross the border for the latest platform? Why can't we choose which TV channels to watch, instead of paying for networks we have no interest in?
The answer to all of these questions is that we have an antiquated foreign-investment regime and a totally outdated set of content regulations under the direction of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
If there is one common theme for the many new startup communication companies I represent, it's that there is no access to capital and no interest from the majors to invest or work with the many smart new media companies. This is a familiar lament to many at Canadian film and TV production companies, who have spent the past 30 years living on airplanes to New York, London, Los Angeles and Germany hoping to find equity partners to make shows, unable to find investors for the sector in Canada.
For the sake of consumers, citizens and small-to-medium-size businesses, the time has come to unleash the outdated rules surrounding foreign ownership on communications and broadcasting in Canada. The country will benefit immediately and measurably from competition, new capital investment, jobs, increased valuations and, for Canadian taxpayers, the possibility of much higher bids for the upcoming spectrum auction.
This does not mean losing Canadian content requirements for TV stations and networks in Canada - a traditional argument used against foreign investment. Many major Canadian communication companies have operated in numerous foreign markets and know full well how domestic rules are maintained. This cannot be the issue that prevents a relaxation of foreign ownership rules. That said, content rules do need to be quickly updated to enhance the consumer experience and bring more consumer fairness on billing, access and service while ensuring access by and for Canadians.
The time has come.
Kevin Shea is a broadcast executive consultant.