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Chairman of the CRTC Konrad von Finckenstein arrives to testify at a House of Commons science and technology committee to discuss the billing practices of internet providers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, February 3, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Chairman of the CRTC Konrad von Finckenstein arrives to testify at a House of Commons science and technology committee to discuss the billing practices of internet providers on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, February 3, 2011. (Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Duncan Stewart

A look at the CRTC from the inside out Add to ...

Last Thursday in Ottawa the CRTC held an event called Forum 2011: Shaping Regulatory Approaches for the Future. It was not the usual CRTC public hearing, but was instead supposed to be a smaller meeting where various folks could talk openly about how the CRTC ought to regulate the Canadian telecom and broadcasting going forward. I was on one of the panels.

It was held under what are called Chatham House Rules, in which participants can share what they heard, but not who said it or with which organization they are affiliated.

I can already hear the people who are not CRTC fans warming up their keyboards, turning the ALL CAPS key on and looking up the spelling of "cabal." But hang on just a sec…

First, this was not just a bunch of CRTC sycophants, or even industry lobbyists. Initially I thought you were going to have to take my word for that, as Chatham Rules prevents me from identifying those present. However, those nice people at the Commission have created a web page with all the attendees, and you can see that some strong CRTC critics were there too.

Next, Chatham House Rules are not some Stalinist conspiracy to promote secrecy: many Deloitte events use them to allow people to say things that they might not say if they could be quoted. I am not sure the rule was even needed last week: most of the things that were said were important and well-articulated … but were neither surprising nor controversial.

Most importantly, we were allowed and even encouraged to tweet about the event in real time, some of us did so, and many Canadians not in attendance were able to comment on the discussion as it went along. One online media source, notably critical of the CRTC, was even invited to attend and tweet about what was said. (Only after, it is fair to point out, they made a big noise about the meeting being behind closed doors.)

I have checked and checked the Chatham House Rules, and I can't find anything that says I can't quote myself, so here is a brief summary of my comments.

1) All-you-can-eat is a bad idea. There are real costs to providing gigabytes of data, both wireless and wireline. They might not be obvious, but any unmetered data pricing scheme will eventually force a network into congestion, at which point network providers need to spend money to make the network bigger. That fully loaded cost is different for different networks, but around the world the marginal cost of providing a GB of data is pennies or dimes for wireline, and dollars or tens of dollars for wireless.

In other words, I advocated usage-based billing, and pointed to U.S. ISPs starting to move in that direction. However, lest I be accused of being in the pocket of the Canadian carriers yet again, I went on to add that our Canadian caps were likely to rise a lot over the next few years and I also suggested that overage charges were going to decrease massively. I suggested that by 2015 caps would allow the average Canadian home to watch about 75 hours of HD TV plus another 100GB of other internet traffic.

Subsequently, Netflix announced this week a new transmission option that allows subscribers to watch more hours of video per GB. At its most compressed setting, this would permit almost 500 hours of TV per month, which seems ample. Time will tell if viewers who have shelled out a lot of money for high-definition big screen TVs will settle for a lower quality image. My hunch would be no: Netflix's solution is clever, and will help in the short term, but most viewers will want the best signal possible.

2) Next, I argued that the regulators need to free up more wireless spectrum, and quickly. We see wireless congestion as an issue that hasn't hit Canada yet, but it is one that will be critical within the next 5 years.

3) Finally, I pointed out that Facebook is rapidly turning into a "platform" technology. It sits on top of the Internet, and encourages users to do all of the 3 Cs: consume content, communicate with each other, and use its own virtual currency. I didn't say that the CRTC should try to regulate Facebook: but I did say that not factoring social networks into a regulatory framework would be ignoring one of the most profound technological shifts occurring today.

I don't agree with everything the CRTC decides, or how they decide it. But I do think they deserve some credit for reaching out to a diverse group of Canadians (including critics and public interest advocates) and allowing us to talk to them about some of the key issues of the next few years.

I hope they end up incorporating these more diverse views, and also that they hold similar events in the future.

Duncan Stewart has been researching technology since 1990, and writing about it in the media since 1999. A former pension/mutual/hedge fund manager, he now directs tech research at Deloitte Canada, and lives in Toronto.

His column will appear on globetechnology.com every second Thursday.

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