Cabinet must direct the CRTC to ensure it is living up to its mandate to act in the public interest.
It’s no secret that Canadians currently pay some of the highest prices in the world for our Internet services. Year on year it’s the same old news, which was confirmed yet again in a report released just weeks ago by the consulting firm Rewheel: Canada placed dead last (or close to it) in just about every single category for wireless affordability.
Canadians were offered a rare glimmer of hope when, for a few days in December 2017, national carriers were offering cellphone plans of 10 GB for $60 a month, a short-lived deal that people responded to by lining up around malls or waiting on hold for hours just to try to nab a more affordable plan. But days later those plans were taken off the market. The fleeting bargain was widely viewed as a shallow tactic by the Big Three (Bell, Telus and Rogers) to undercut Freedom Mobile, a low-cost competitor that has been gaining ground.
Sadly, this lack of affordability and these anticompetitive tactics aren’t new: they’re the norm in Canada. The country has a long history of telecommunications monopolies and high rates. The question is, Who is going to step up and put the public first?
Canada’s communications system is overseen by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an arm’s-length regulator acting in the public interest. Formed in 1968, the organization was created to ensure “Canadians retain control over new communications technologies.” Its mission includes ensuring “Canadians have access to a world-class communication system” and that we can “connect to quality and innovative communication services at affordable prices.”
But a closer look at the CRTC’s role in the marketplace raises a number of questions about who the regulator is actually looking out for. If the CRTC were really achieving its mission, wouldn’t things look better for customers? Recent events and decisions raise questions about its willingness to put the public at the heart of its decision-making and suggest that the CRTC’s priorities are instead more aligned with protecting industry profits.
In February of this year, the CRTC rejected calls to investigate aggressive and misleading sales tactics being used by Bell and Rogers, leaving customers to fend for themselves and file individual complaints to the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS), instead of launching a systemic investigation.
In March, the CRTC rejected an opportunity to provide more choice and affordable access to Canadians, despite being directly asked by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, to reconsider its original ruling denying network access for mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). These smaller, innovative wireless providers use Wifi as a home network and could help break up the oligopoly of the Big Three. Bains’ request sent a strong signal to the CRTC about the need to foster a more competitive marketplace — but unfortunately the regulator chose to ignore it.
And in late May, the CRTC issued a report on the future of Canadian programming to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly. In it, the CRTC recommends mandating new financial contributions to Canadian content from all broadband Internet and audio and visual content services — a proposal that would inevitably see the costs passed along to customers and raise the costs of Internet access. This idea had already been rejected by the government.
Behind the scenes, things only look worse. As University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist reports, lobbying of the CRTC by Bell Canada has exponentially increased. According to internal documents obtained under the Access to Information Act by the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications, Bell secured a private audience with CRTC commissioners and staff to pitch its proposal for website blocking in Canada. The proposal is aimed at blocking access to pirated content, but includes no judicial oversight and will lead to legitimate content being censored.
With telecom customers’ calls for relief falling on deaf ears at the regulator and the industry’s influence growing, where will Canadians find adequate representation? Who’s actually looking out for the public interest in these spaces? It’s certainly not the industry. The regulator seems to be failing.
Ultimately, the responsibility for the CRTC and for the future of Canada’s communications system lands with Ministers Bains and Joly. While both have raised Internet affordability as a concern, we have yet to see their departments succeed at shifting the CRTC’s focus. It’s time for these ministers to ensure we have a regulator whose prime concern is the public interest.
As we saw with the recent decision on MVNOs, this shift won’t come easily. It’s going to take a new policy direction, issued directly from the government, that prioritizes access, choice and affordability.
People need to come first, not as an afterthought or simply as the fuel to keep the telecom revenues flowing. The products, services and content being produced by these media conglomerates need to serve the public, not the other way around.
We long ago left a world where digital connectivity is optional. Critical services such as government resources and educational programs are increasingly being digitized, and many jobs now require people to be available online far beyond the regular 9-to-5. But the divide between those who have high-speed quality access and those who are forced to ration their time online — or who can’t get online at all — is rapidly growing.
Will the government take action? Or will we, yet again, be left with a lot of talk but no real change?
This article is part of the Recalibrating Canada’s Consumer Rights Regime special feature.
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