Konrad von Finckenstein’s contentious term as chairman of the federal broadcast and telecom regulator is coming to an end, after five years characterized by clashes with the Tory government and a series of landmark decisions about the future of the industries it oversees.
Mr. von Finckenstein had been seeking an extension to his term as head of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, according to people with knowledge of the matter. In an internal memo sent early Tuesday afternoon, Mr. von Finckenstein informed his staff that the government will soon be evaluating candidates to take over his job.
It’s a weighty responsibility. The CRTC defines and enforces the rules that media and telecom companies must follow – and affects the quality and price of all the major communications services Canadians use every day, from their TV to their Internet and phone connections.
Since he was appointed in 2007, Mr. von Finckenstein has butted heads with federal government officials and industry heavyweights, overseen drastic changes to the broadcast and telecom sectors in Canada, and testily scolded anyone at CRTC hearings he felt did not adequately answer his questions.
His five-year term ends in January, 2012.
“I know that I can count on your dedication over the next four months,” Mr. von Finckenstein wrote in the memo.
Heritage Minister James Moore, one of two federal ministers (along with Industry) who oversee the arm’s-length regulator, was not available for comment.
“We thank Mr. von Finckenstein for his service as chair of the CRTC,” a spokesperson for Mr. Moore said in an e-mailed statement. “A process for the selection of a new CRTC chair will be announced in the weeks ahead.”
Officials at the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Privy Council Office will be in charge of examining candidates for the job. Mr. Moore will then announce Mr. von Finckenstein’s successor.
The chairman clashed with the government more than once during his tenure, most recently during the fierce debate over usage-based billing for Internet services. The CRTC had ruled that large Internet service providers, such as Bell Canada, could impose limits on how much bandwidth small independent Internet providers are allowed to use when they piggyback on the larger companies’ networks. Consumer advocates and smaller independent Internet providers protested, saying the decision effectively killed the independents’ ability to offer unlimited data plans to their users.
The Industry Minister at the time, Tony Clement, said that the government would overturn the CRTC’s decision if the regulator did not reconsider. The uproar prompted a CRTC hearing into the matter in July, and the CRTC is now considering its decision.
It was not the first time the government intervened during Mr. von Finckenstein’s five-year term. During the fall of 2009, cabinet overturned a CRTC ruling that Globalive Wireless Management Corp. did not adhere to Canadian ownership rules in the sector, kicking off a debate over foreign ownership in telecom, and a legal battle.
The clashes with government caused industry observers to take notice.
“You can’t talk to anybody these days who doesn’t note the fact that he’s had a number of decisions overturned,” said former CRTC chair David Colville, speaking from his home in Halifax. “I think he’s done a pretty credible job dealing with a lot of difficult issues that have come before him.”
Mr. von Finckenstein announced his departure to staff less than a week after the CRTC released a major decision attempting to define how it will regulate a changing broadcast industry. Within the landmark announcement was a new set of rules for “vertically integrated” companies, or cable and satellite providers that also own broadcast assets; a demand that TV providers create more à la carte options for their subscribers; and a ban on hoarding TV shows for exclusive viewing on mobile devices.
In his memo on Tuesday, Mr. von Finckenstein outlined his priorities for the remainder of his term. He wants the CRTC to reach a decision on the issue of usage-based billing for Internet services; to talk to industry leaders about the effects of TV delivered over the Web, or “over-the-top” television; to hold a hearing on “network interconnection” of telecom services; and to hold a hearing on the regulatory system for the French-language TV market.
Key moments in his tenure
In February, Konrad von Finckenstein was called before a House of Commons committee and challenged over the CRTC’s decision about usage-based billing for Internet services. He was forced to re-examine the decision, though Mr. von Finckenstein contended the CRTC had independently decided to take a second look.
In 2009, the CRTC ruled that a new player in the wireless phone industry, Globalive, violated Canadian ownership laws because of hefty funding from Egyptian wireless giant Orascom. The federal government, saying it was opening the industry to more competition, overturned the decision.
Also known as value for signal. The battle over whether networks such as CTV should be allowed to charge fees to cable and satellite providers, the way specialty networks do, seemed to be never-ending. The CRTC first ruled the networks could not demand fees, then decided they could. Since then, the remaining private networks have been swallowed up by major cable and satellite players – but that did not stop a court battle over the decision.
Mr. von Finckenstein not only sparred with government officials during his term; he also had repeated conflicts with former Shaw Communications Inc. chief executive officer, Jim Shaw, who made no secret of his resentment of the regulations imposed on the cable and satellite industry. In 2008, after Shaw challenged regulations by deliberating flouting rules – advertising too much on its community channel or moving stations to other parts of the dial without proper warning – the CRTC slapped it with a two-year probation on its licence.
During Mr. von Finckenstein’s term, the media industry has undergone massive shifts, with properties coming under fewer, and bigger, owners. The regulator dealt with this issue after mergers in 2006 and again last year, each time introducing new rules to try to cope with the changing industry landscape and attempt to prevent market abuses.