The Canadian communications world is focused this week on the proposed merger between Bell and Astral Media as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission holds its much-anticipated hearing on the issue in Montreal. While the merger takes centre stage, the Commission may have upstaged the process last Thursday by releasing a detailed priorities document that covers the next three years.
With Jean-Pierre Blais installed as the new CRTC chair and the Conservatives emboldened by majority government, the Commission’s priorities send a message of change in Canadian communications policy. The days of emphasizing Canadian content rules or legislative overhauls are over, replaced by a consumer-oriented focus on affordable access to both content and connectivity services.
The CRTC priorities document identifies a single overarching objective: “ensuring that Canadians have access to a world-class communication system.” Given the myriad of policy objectives contained in both the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act, the singular focus on consumer access is a subtle but important change from the approach of the previous chair, Konrad von Finckenstein.
In a series of speeches early in von Finckenstein’s mandate, the then-Chair focused on two objectives for the Broadcasting Act – Canadian content and access to the system – along with a policy priority of reliance on market forces for the telecom sector. In the years that followed, the Commission confronted massive change in both broadcast and telecom as the Internet radically reshaped the industry and led the calls for legislative reform and a coherent digital strategy.
The new CRTC seems ready to de-emphasize the need for a single Communications Act by simply treating both aspects of its mandate under the single access objective. Three pillars – create, connect, and protect – support that objective. The create pillar is primarily focused on broadcast issues, the connect pillar on telecom concerns, and the protect pillar on the emerging consumer enforcement mandate that includes do-not-call legislation, anti-spam rules, and stolen wireless devices.
The emphasis on a consumer perspective is also an obvious new trend. Von Finckenstein was certainly concerned with consumer issues, focusing early in his mandate on the creation of a telecom consumer agency that became the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services. However, he also supported new fees to support broadcasters and was careful to emphasize balance, stating that “we will aim to strike the right balance between the needs of the industry and the expectations of consumers.”
The new CRTC has moved the consumer perspective to the forefront of its policy making and priorities. Earlier this summer, it announced that it was terminating the Local Programming Improvement Fund, which had cost consumers over $300 million. Then late last month it announced that it was establishing a chief consumer officer post with responsibilities of ensuring that the public interest was at the heart of its policy making.
The priorities document doubles down on the consumer emphasis. The CRTC says it will “monitor broadband speeds and the choice of Internet service providers available to Canadians, as well as the prices paid for telephone services.” Further, “the percentage of Canadians who report receiving fewer telemarketing calls and the volume of spam prevented will be tracked.”
Given the recent CRTC developments such as the creation of broadcast participation fund (to allow public interest groups to intervene in hearings), the use of social media to solicit public feedback, and the reversal on Internet billing policy, the priorities for the next three years continue the trend toward examining policy issues through the lens of Canadian consumers.
The outcome of the proposed Bell – Astral merger may provide some additional insight into CRTC thinking, but the priorities document suggests that a key concern will stem from an analysis of what further media convergence will ultimately mean for consumer access to content on conventional broadcast platforms, wireless services, and the Internet.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.