Jean-Pierre Blais has some making up to do.
The new boss of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says he is on a mission to “rebuild” the trust of Canadians by renewing its focus on consumers, creators and citizens – something his predecessors weren’t able to do, he said, because they were distracted by high-level regulatory issues.
Regaining the trust of a skeptical public will be challenging because there is a perception the CRTC has been ignoring average consumers for decades, Mr. Blais said in his first in-depth media interview since taking the helm in June. Over the years, as the CRTC dismantled monopolies in the telecommunications sector, for example, it may have become so focused on regulatory issues such as the number of market players and competition levels that “we may have forgotten Canadians there in the mix,” Mr. Blais said.
“And look, we were dealing with extremely complicated issues.
“I think it was daunting for individual Canadians to participate in our proceedings. We got distant, and I want to get reacquainted.”
Mr. Blais’ focus on bolstering the public’s trust comes after several difficult years for the regulator.
In recent years, the regulator made controversial decisions on issues such usage-based billing for wholesale Internet access and Wind Mobile’s ownership structure. Eager to turn the page on the past, the CRTC is finding more ways to engage ordinary Canadians. For instance, it is overhauling its website and is offering evening sessions for the coming licence renewal hearings for the CBC so the general public can attend.
And after about four months on the job, Mr. Blais is already making strides to define his legacy. He has paved the way for the introduction of slimmed down TV packages, announced plans to create a national code for wireless services and pushed the wireless industry to create a central registry of stolen devices to reduce the incentive for theft.
But the commission’s boldest move to date was a surprise decision this month to kill BCE Inc.’s proposed $3-billion acquisition of Astral Media Inc. on the grounds the deal was not in the public interest.
“We know we have some work to do to gain the trust of Canadians. Our brand needs work. Can we convince everyone to trust us? No, not everyone,” Mr. Blais said in an earlier keynote address to the annual conference of the Canadian chapter of the International Institute of Communications.
“But we can do better, and we will do better – to earn their trust, every day, in every action and in every decision.”
Empowered consumers, he said, are a sign of a healthy and increasingly competitive marketplace – adding the average Canadian family spends in excess of $2,100 on communication services each year, making it the sixth-largest household expense. According to the latest CRTC data, overall revenues for the communications industry totalled $59.3-billion in 2011, up 3.3 per cent from 2010.
“This is a growing part of the family budget. It may have been different when radio and television were free over the air. This is now a pocketbook-type issue for Canadians, so it focuses the mind as well.”
But Mr. Blais also gave the business community assurances on Monday that he does not plan to become a heavy-handed regulator, adding that regulation ought to remain the exception so that companies have the “full flexibility” to innovate.
“We need successful companies large and small, national and local, competing in the marketplace. We have confidence in the business sector. For the most part we will get out of your way,” he said.
“However, we won’t hesitate to intervene when there’s market failure or a need to protect Canadians.”