The Canadian battle over broadband services has taken an unexpected turn in recent weeks as Bell’s effort to win high profile support for its appeal of a crucial ruling issued by Canada’s telecom regulator appears to have backfired. After support from Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson for the telecom giant came to light, city councillors in both cities fought back with motions rejecting the mayors’ positions and expressing support for more competitive Internet services.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the issue started with a July 2015 Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision that extended policy measures designed to support independent Internet providers to emerging fast fibre connections. The ruling meant that Bell would be required to share their infrastructure with independent carriers on a wholesale basis. The policy guarantees Bell a profit on the connections, but also promotes increased competition that should provide consumers with more choice and better pricing.
Bell filed a cabinet appeal in the fall, hoping that the new Liberal government would overturn the CRTC decision. The Liberals have yet to articulate a clear position on the issue with the sole statement found in the mandate letter for Navdeep Bains, the Minister for Innovation, Science and Economic Development. It requires Bains to “increase high-speed broadband coverage and work to support competition, choice and availability of services, and foster a strong investment environment for telecommunications services to keep Canada at the leading edge of the digital economy”. The statement can be interpreted as offering encouraging words for both Bell and its opponents.
Leaving nothing to chance, Bell obtained support for its cabinet appeal from Tory and Watson, who wrote letters citing Bell’s planned investments in the cities and expressing concern that the commission ruling might delay or derail those plans. Conversely, the city of Calgary submitted a 28 page document supporting the CRTC ruling and explaining why increased competition was good for the city and consumers.
The difference between the Calgary submission and the Tory and Watson letters was not limited to policy matters. While the Calgary submission represented the city, the letters from the two Ontario mayors were not written on behalf of their cities but instead reflected their own personal views.
The distinction was not obvious to many, however, raising the ire of city councillors. First, Toronto Councillor Mike Layton introduced a motion expressing support for more competition and the CRTC decision. The motion also requested an opportunity to meet with Bains to discuss the issue. In a significant rebuke to Tory, it passed overwhelmingly with 28 in support and only five councillors opposed.
Emboldened by the Toronto motion, last week Ottawa city councillors tabled notice of their own motion. It also resolves that “the city of Ottawa support the CRTC’s decision to require the sharing of fiber-optic networks between large and small competitors.” A vote on the motion is expected in the coming weeks. Watson now acknowledges that he did not spend a lot of time on the issue.
Should the Ottawa city council vote in support of the CRTC decision, three of the biggest cities in Canada will have sent an important message to the federal government. First, there is significant support in large Canadian communities for policy measures that foster increased competition. As telecom companies invest in new networks, cities fear that failure to include mandated access requirements could result in higher prices and less choice for their residents.
Second, Internet access is a major policy and political issue that is attracting mounting attention at both the municipal and provincial levels. Given Bains’ recent emphasis on innovation, an aggressive plan to ensure that all Canadians have access to affordable, fast Internet services is an absolute must.