Ian Scott doesn't want to play consumer advocate but neither does he plan to be an industry shill.
The new chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – a government relations professional who spent the early years of his career in the civil service – says his guiding principle will be to act in the public interest.
Mr. Scott, who has lobbied for Telus Corp. and Telesat Canada, has come under fire for his perceived ties to industry, with some advocacy groups suggesting he could be harmful to consumers. In some respects, he stands in stark contrast to his predecessor Jean-Pierre Blais, a career public servant who seemed to embrace a public image based on defending the interests of regular Canadians.
"With respect to the consumer issue, I don't like the label. I don't want to be known as 'pro-consumer.' I don't want to be known as 'pro-business.' I'd like to be known, frankly, as 'pro-public interest,'" Mr. Scott said in an interview Thursday, slightly more than two weeks after starting his five-year term at the regulator.
True, he has spent time working for powerful companies, but he says many have overlooked his years working as an executive at Call-Net Enterprises. As the owner of Sprint Canada, Call-Net competed for local and long-distance customers in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
"We were probably public enemy number one for the large telephone companies. Sprint was the company that brought about massive change to first, the long-distance market, and then was one of the first 'new entrants' in terms of local telephone competition," Mr. Scott said. "So I can tell you, I don't think they thought I was their best friend in those days."
Minister of Innovation Navdeep Bains has publicly expressed concern over the affordability of telecom services and the need for more competition in the wireless industry. He ordered the CRTC to reconsider a ruling on startup providers that use WiFi hot-spots as their "home network." The commission ruled that such operators can't rely on regulated rates to access roaming service from the dominant carriers when their customers aren't on WiFi and need cellular coverage.
Mr. Scott said he cannot comment on the specifics of that case – or any other files before the commission. He said the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development is partly responsible for competition in the wireless industry (it manages the use of spectrum, the airwaves used to build cellular networks), but acknowledged the CRTC also has a role to play.
"Am I pro-competition? Absolutely. More competition is better. A competitive industry generally brings more benefits to consumers. And we'll do our part to make sure consumers are in a position to make intelligent decisions," he said, pointing to the CRTC's move to implement a national wireless code that helps educate consumers on their rights.
As he sees it, the role of the CRTC, which regulates both the telecom and broadcast industries, is to consider applications before it, look at the input from Canadians and other stakeholders, "and then both myself and my colleagues render decisions in the public interest."
Mr. Scott emphasized that he's not the only voice or vote at the table. There are seven commissioners, including the chairman, and each one has an equal say in decisions they make based on the information and recommendations the CRTC's staff put forth.
"I don't direct commissioners in terms of how they vote."
Returning to the CRTC – early in his professional life he spent time there on staff and also worked at the Competition Bureau – "fit nicely into my overall career arc."
"I always had in mind that I'd like to return to the public sector before the end of my career. Because dealing with public policy from the public interest perspective is a lot more fun than dealing with it from a private-sector perspective," Mr. Scott said.
Early in Mr. Blais's term as chairman in 2012, he said by the time he left, he wanted the commission to be "trusted by Canadians" and not seen as "in the pockets of the big companies."
Mr. Scott's vision for his tenure is decidedly more neutral: "I'd be happy at the end of five years if people turn around and say the commission is seen as one of the leading communications regulators and has a record of rendering decisions in a timely manner in the public interest."