On Dec. 19, 2019, the chairman of the CRTC, Ian Scott, met Mirko Bibic, chief operating officer of BCE, for a drink at D’Arcy McGee’s, a popular pub a block away from Parliament Hill. The occasion was Mr. Bibic’s promotion to CEO, a role he would undertake a few weeks later.
The two talked about Mr. Bibic’s new job and its challenges. Mr. Bibic also wanted to talk about Bell’s French-language media in Quebec, and so a meeting to offer congratulations was officially reported, as required by the Lobbying Act.
At the time, Bell and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission were deeply enmeshed in a number of major files, as is always the case. But it was hotter than normal. Earlier in 2019, the CRTC made a big ruling on the rates small companies that resell internet service have to pay to use the internet networks of large companies like Bell. The decision went against Bell and its large peers. A week before the drink at D’Arcy McGee’s, Bell had filed an official appeal of the decision with the CRTC. At the pub, however, the two men didn’t talk about telecom policy.
That’s according to the result of a conflict of interest review of the meeting. Last week, the case was dismissed by the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. The meeting between the head of the telecom regulator and the about-to-be boss of Canada’s biggest telecom company had raised questions in the industry. The ethics commissioner determined that, while the meeting may have been friendly, the two men were not friends, and Mr. Scott did not have a conflict of interest in his role as CRTC chair.
It’s reasonable to wonder whether the chair of the CRTC should go out for a drink to congratulate the new CEO of Bell. But that’s not the fundamental issue. Canadians aren’t concerned about a single friendly drink; what’s worrisome are all the recent industry-friendly CRTC decisions.
Federal telecom policy and CRTC decisions in recent years have made a significant U-turn. In 2019, it was all about affordability. Canadians had been worn down by too-high prices for wireless and internet service delivered by Bell, Rogers and Telus, the Big Three that control most of the market. The campaigning Liberals promised lower prices. The CRTC’s internet ruling was meant to propel competition; in wireless, the regulator was also looking at how to stoke competition and lower prices.
A shift started in 2020. The re-elected Trudeau government backed off the affordability focus and told the CRTC it should rethink its internet decision. In the spring of 2021, the CRTC basically disavowed its 2019 ruling, turning a loss for the Big Three into a win. Former CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein said he was stunned by what he called a “one-sided” decision. The CRTC around the same time also delivered a much more timid wireless ruling than it had promised.
After the internet ruling, a Toronto Star analysis showed that, over two years, the Big Three and several other large companies had had more than 250 lobbying meetings with government and the CRTC, compared with 19 such meetings for three small internet companies.
The goal of the CRTC should be to ensure that the largest number of Canadians get the highest quality services at the lowest reasonable price. Its mission is to shape the industry so it delivers. This isn’t meant to punish the industry – but the industry is an essential service that should serve the public interest, not the other way around.
There are valid issues to debate – such as the importance of investing in next-generation networks. But there should be a decided distance between the CRTC and industry. Mr. von Finckenstein, before the CRTC, was head of the Competition Bureau and a justice on the Federal Court. Jean-Pierre Blais, Mr. Scott’s predecessor, had been a longtime senior civil servant. Mr. Scott’s experience was mostly in industry, including as a vice-president at Telus.
In the end, Ottawa sets the agenda. This appears to be shifting again. In May, the Trudeau government said Canadians “still pay too much” for internet and wireless, and told the CRTC to redouble the push for more competition. Ottawa also suggested it could take another look at the CRTC’s wireless decision from last year and further open up incumbent networks. Ottawa also chooses who’s boss. Mr. Scott’s five-year term concludes next week. The person named as his successor could be a sign of where the government wants to direct the telecom and broadcast regulator in the challenging years ahead.
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