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A person navigates to the online social media pages of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on a cell phone in Ottawa on May 17, 2021. The CRTC announced this month that it will continue the licence that funds the national alert aggregation and dissemination system that places popup warnings onto cellphones, televisions and radios in times of crisis.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Cable-television subscribers will continue to fund Canada’s life-saving alerting system for at least three more years after the CRTC chose not to adjust an arrangement that government officials have suggested is unsustainable and which was criticized by the commission looking into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced this month that it would maintain until 2026 scores of licences for the cable-television industry, including one that funds the national alert aggregation and dissemination system.

This message-routing platform places popup warnings onto cellphones, televisions and radios in times of crisis, such as natural disasters or mass shootings. The NAAD, part of a system that Canadians know as Alert Ready, is overseen and funded by the CRTC, the telecom regulator, and not by governments.

Alerts on the system have been sent a record 993 times so far in 2023. In the previous three years combined, 1,179 were sent. This has prompted concern that a crucial public-safety tool whose use is skyrocketing, especially in this summer of wildfires, heat waves and flooding, is still being funded by revenues drawn from a shrinking cable-TV industry.

The Angus Reid Institute released a poll last fall saying that in 2012, nearly nine in 10 Canadian households subscribed to cable or satellite TV services, but only about three in five say this now, because viewers have migrated to streaming alternatives such as Netflix.

By just renewing the licences, the CRTC is not holding hearings that would have provided an opportunity to gather testimony from key players about Alert Ready. The regulatory body’s central role in building Canada’s industry-centred approach was criticized last March by the public inquiry into the 2020 mass shooting in Nova Scotia that killed 22 people.

Federal, provincial and territorial ministers in charge of emergency management across Canada have released statements saying they are re-examining Alert Ready’s “sustainability, continuity of service and governance” and that they have also instructed their officials to explore alternative funding models.

But there’s no news on what those models might be. In the meantime, records show that until the CRTC’s announcement this month, the officials have been trying to develop policies compatible with the many possible permutations of potential CRTC regulatory rulings.

Alert Ready’s “current funding system is not sustainable and next steps following the expiration of the current [CRTC] term are not clear,” reads a Public Safety Canada PowerPoint deck that was circulated late last year following several meetings by senior civil servants across jurisdictions.

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“Need to consider impacts of any potential CRTC decision,” reads the document, titled “DRAFT-National Public Alerting System (NPAS) Update, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail under access to information laws.

Other released records show that Public Safety Canada experts on alerting e-mailed their CRTC counterparts several times in 2022 to ask about the status of the anticipated cable licence renewal hearings, given their effect on alerting policy.

The CRTC responded that given its new responsibilities under the upcoming Online Streaming Act, it probably would skip in-depth hearings and just renew cable-television licences, including those that involve the national public-alerting system.

The Nova Scotia Mass Casualty Commission’s final report recalled how no Alert Ready warnings sounded during the May, 2020, rampage when a gunman killed 22 people. Police told the inquiry no one had ever instructed them on how to issue alerts. The commission concluded the tragedy was compounded because emergency responders were marginalized during the alerting system’s evolution.

“We need to shift responsibility for public alerting in Canada away from a private provider and toward a national framework that is operationalized by provincial and territorial public service agencies,” the commission concluded in its report.

The Alert Ready system is designed so that government officials bear responsibility for issuing alerts. But critics have long contended that so long as the CRTC plays a central role, government officials will never take ownership of the system or its failures.

In the early 2000s, federal officials tried to rally the provinces into working together to build a government version of an alerting system.

When that initiative failed, the CRTC stepped in by exercising a tool that governments do not have – the power to tell telecommunications companies what to do. And since 2009, the regulator has designated Oakville-based Pelmorex Corp., a cable-TV company, as its hand-picked agent for alerting technology.

Under the arrangement, the CRTC grants Pelmorex a “must carry” cable-TV licence, placing the company’s Weather Network on millions of cable-TV packages, yielding the company 22 cents per subscriber. In return, Pelmorex fully owns the NAAD system and must use some of its revenues toward building, upgrading and governing the technology.

There appears to be no immediate plan to review this arrangement.

“CRTC will launch the formal proceeding to renew Pelmorex’s licence in due course and cannot provide a specific time frame at this time,” Rémi Savard, a spokesman for the CRTC, said in an e-mail to The Globe.

The commission says that its cable-TV renewal announcement made on Aug. 8 covers off pre-existing arrangements with Pelmorex, including the operation of the NAAD system.

“We are pleased that the CRTC has renewed our broadcasting licence,” said Martin Bélanger, Pelmorex’s director of public alerting. In an e-mailed statement, he said that for further details “we recommend that you contact the CRTC and Public Safety Canada.”

Public Safety Canada spokesman Tim Warmington said in a statement to The Globe that the federal department “does not and has not funded the National Alert Aggregation and Dissemination (NAAD) System.”

But, he said, federal and provincial public safety ministers have met frequently, including this summer, to talk about shared issues, including the potential bolstering of the alerting system. “Ministers instructed their respective teams to continue this work and to consider the recommendations of the Mass Casualty Commission report related to public alerting,” reads a joint federal-provincial statement issued in June.

In 2018, the CRTC held public hearings delving into the pros and cons of giving Pelmorex continuing control of the national-public alerting system’s technology platform.

During those licence-renewal hearings, the regulator decided to renew the deal for another five years. But the CRTC also warned things might have to change when that deal expired on Aug. 31, 2023. “The operation of the NAAD System and the development of related policies would be more appropriately situated with and supported by organizations more directly responsible for public safety,” reads the CRTC’s 2018 ruling.

The new Pelmorex licence now expires on Aug. 31, 2026.

“The CRTC is doing its work with this renewal,” said Ernest MacGillivray, a former senior emergency manager in New Brunswick. He said that “it’s important to recognize that the CRTC’s role has been absolutely essential.”

Michael Hallowes, a British consultant who once presided over Australia’s alerting system, says the system’s governance model remains “a huge concern.”

He testified at the Mass Casualty Commission last year and said that the Canadian alerting arrangements are unique – and probably misplaced.

“The CRTC is not a front-line responder. It is a regulator of telecoms,” he said. “And that’s not where the responsibility should sit.”

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