Pity Ian Scott, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), as he tries to determine which policy path he should tread in the months and years to come.
Little more than two weeks ago, the federal government issued a new telecommunications policy directive – one which was well-received by all but the biggest players. It made clear that the CRTC must favour the consumer need for affordable access to telecom services such as the internet.
As Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said, “It’s really about putting the consumer front-and-centre, so the investments being made will benefit consumers as well [as investors].”
Policy directives and the clarity they bring can be wonderful things. The regulator now knows exactly what is expected of it and those making representation to the regulator know how much weight to put on which part of their arguments. It helps to entrench what most who have interests at stake with a regulator crave: consistency, predictability and investor certainty.
For smaller telecom players such as Teksavvy and interest groups such as the Internet Society of Canada, Mr. Bains’s directive was the breath of life. Now, they can be service providers only and be recognized as having core value to the system. Previous governments going back to the last century have preferred facilities-based competition, where all companies had to build their own network infrastructure.
Alas, the yippee-ki-yay-ing lasted only until last week’s release of a report from the Broadcasting and Telecom Legislative Review (BTLR) panel chaired by former telecom executive Janet Yale. Charged with making recommendations to the government in its praiseworthy determination to update the nation’s legislative framework, Ms. Yale’s group held consultations from coast to coast to coast and, on June 26, released a report summarizing what they heard. More interesting, at least everyone thought, would be the release scheduled for January, 2020, about what the BTLR thinks new communications legislation should look like.
That is, until Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez weighed in with his commitment to what new communications legislation will look like – regardless of what Ms. Yale’s panel thinks.
“Thanks to @JanetYale1 & panel for their work. We will be ready to legislate once we receive their recommendations,” he tweeted. “Everyone has to contribute to our culture. That’s why we’ll require web giants to create Canadian content + promote it on their platforms.”
As University of Ottawa communications professor Michael Geist suggested the next day in a blog, “the government has seemingly shifted its policy approach well ahead of the final BTLR report. All of which begs the question: With firm positions on both telecom and broadcast, what is the point of the BTLR if the government has already decided what it intends to do?”
The debate about whether the direction Mr. Rodriguez pronounced is a solution in search of a problem is best left for another day. Suffice to say, Mr. Rodriguez could not have been more clear. Either through a levy on internet bills or otherwise, the new legislation will force the online world, which is not broadcasting and never has been, to fill the appropriate federal coffers with money. Like all federal funding, that cash will, in turn, be distributed on a two-thirds, one-third basis to English and French language “creators” who will then be able to carry on as if the internet was never invented at all.
You may agree that’s the way it should be. Many fine people do. What is more difficult to reconcile is how such an approach benefits consumers who, by and large, love Canadian content in theory but in reality, enthusiastically embrace the freedom of content choice the internet has given them.
Which brings us to Mr. Scott’s dilemma. On one of his shoulders is telecom and the Ministry of Innovation, Science and Economic Development led by Mr. Bains. It favours benefiting consumers which means focusing on availability, affordability and choice.
On his other shoulder is broadcasting, the Heritage Ministry and Mr. Rodriguez. It favours market management, intervention into the telecom world and, intended or otherwise, policies that reduce choice and demand “contributions.” Those, inevitably, drive up the cost and restrict the availability, affordability and choice of services.
Good luck with that, Mr. Scott.
Peter Menzies is a former newspaper publisher and vice-chair of the CRTC, and advises tech companies on regulatory policy. The views here are his own.