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Departing CRTC head, once at odds with cabinet, lauds its directives

Konrad von Finckenstein, the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, waits to testify before the Commons industry committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Feb. 3, 2011. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS HEADSHOT MEDIA)

Chris Wattie/Chris Wattie/Reuters

The man who once clashed with the Conservative government over usage-based billing says he thinks cabinet directives help the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission make difficult policy decisions.

Konrad von Finckenstein, the outgoing chairman of the CRTC, told the audience at an International Institute of Communications conference in Ottawa on Tuesday that the directives help the commission understand what kind of telecommunications and broadcast policies the government wants.

"I think the system of the cabinet giving direction is actually helpful," Mr. von Finckenstein said. "It takes any question out of whether you are on the right track or not."

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"So long as the government uses the directive in a consistent way and sparingly, I think it's a good feature of the system."

Mr. von Finckenstein came into the spotlight earlier this year after a CRTC ruling on usage-based billing (UBB) was effectively vetoed by then-industry minister Tony Clement.

The minister disagreed with the CRTC's decision to allow large Internet service providers, such as Rogers Communications Inc. and Bell Canada, to charge independent providers based on the volume of data their customers download. Mr. Clement announced on Twitter that the CRTC would have to go back to the drawing board.

Mr. von Finckenstein has said that the CRTC decided on its own to re-examine the ruling.

"My worst day was being before Parliament on the UBB crisis, trying to explain [the CRTC decision]and realizing nobody knew what I was talking about," he said on Tuesday.

"As I was explaining it, [I was]realizing it doesn't sound good. Maybe we actually didn't get it right."

This month, the CRTC came up with what many termed a compromise: Large telephone and cable companies can either charge a flat rate or sell wholesale bandwidth to independent providers based on the capacity those providers think they'll use.

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Mr. von Finckenstein's five-year term as chairman is set to end in January, and the government has yet to announce his replacement.

On Tuesday, he offered some words of advice for his successor. He said there is a lot of accepted wisdom in the broadcast and telecommunications industry, and the CRTC's chairman should always challenge old assumptions.

Mr. von Finckenstein also warned his successor not to be "co-opted by the industry," saying corporate representatives can be very convincing.

The departing chairman came into frequent conflict with both federal officials and industry members during his term.

He battled former Shaw Communications Inc. chief executive officer Jim Shaw over regulations on the cable and satellite industry, and ruled that Globalive, a new wireless carrier, violated Canadian laws governing foreign ownership. The government later reversed the Globalive decision, saying it wanted to open the industry to more competition.

Asked if he would have taken the job five years ago if he had known what he was in for, Mr. von Finckenstein said he would, adding: "I love a challenge."

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Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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