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CRTC Places Consumers and Access at the Top of its Priority List

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Monday September 10, 2012
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. 

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that 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.
Comments (4)add comment

David Ellis said:

...
Michael - Thanks for alerting the community to what may be an important change of direction. Nonetheless, I remain very skeptical as to whether this agenda will work in a way that is a) evidence-based and b) treats Canadians like media consumers with the right to be protected in the way telecom rules have always intended - rather than as a collective market for Cancon. You note 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."

"Monitor" is a slippery concept that can mean very little - like having "access" to broadband and doing "consultations" with the public. Will the JPB Commission ever do random-probability surveys of end-users? Will they stop bragging about BB "access" and start talking about who's actually online? Will they ever start talking to Canadians in a way most can understand - as opposed to couching our entire network neutrality discussion in terms of ITMPs? Will the Commission "monitor" BB by taking measures of actual performance or rely on the industry and what they advertise? In other words, are they ready to do some real research - because if they're not, then monitoring is a dead letter. And if the 2 enabling statutes don't get updated (even if not merged), and the 2006 Cabinet Direction remains in place and makes everything hinge on market forces, I don't believe the Commission will have the clout to do what it says it wants to do.

Finally, there's the simple problem of putting a framework in place, only to ignore it. I'm thinking here of the consumer complaints process - and having you to thank, Michael, for making us cynics after you wrested those "secret" complaints from the Commission last summer. We discovered not only the bullshit about making public complaints unavailable to the public, but also the terrible job the Commission did in resolving those complaints. Witness the Rogers/CGO/WoW imbroglio, which it said was resolved after Rogers said it was resolved (no worries, we'll stop throttling eventually).

What the CRTC really needs to make this stuff happen is a senior officer who isn't always framing pronouncements for the licensees: a Director of Consumer Affairs, someone who knows how to speak to real people, how to study their needs and how to make their concerns get on the weekly agenda in Gatineau. Otherwise, the Commission's corporate culture is never going to get past the decades of lip service to the great unwashed public... along with the deeply entrenched habit of making cheerful but entirely unfounded observations like the access industry is sufficiently competitive, when clearly it isn't. All that said, I certainly hope your take is closer to what will eventually unfold than my gloomy prognostication.

DE
September 11, 2012

Jon said:

Units & Measurements Act
I'm still waiting for either the CRTC or Industry Canada to take a position on the ILLEGAL practice of charging overage fees.

According to the Units & Measurements Act, it is illegal to charge for a product in units that are not listed in said act. Bits and Bytes do not appear on the act. This means that charging by the bit, kilobit, megabit, gigabit, terabit and petabit (and corresponding bytes) is ILLEGAL. Hence, overage fees are unjustified and uncalled for.

Neither organisation wants to acknowledge or even look at the issue despite SEVERAL complaints. WHY NOT?!
September 11, 2012

Crockett said:

...
A welcome direction from the CRTC, consumers need relief from constant 'overcharges' from ISPs and unbalanced content fees from the creative sector (Honestly, a music media tax on camera cards)?!

As for supporting Canadian content there is a simple solution ... make good content. We live in a digital world without borders, the world is now the stage. There is no longer fear of being drowned out by pipes full of foreign content, as now a days everything is easily international in reach, including our own if played right.

We have loads of talent, skills and a hopefully growing digital infrastructure if the CRTC does as they say. Lets use those resources well and sell to the world, nothing is holding us back but ourselves.
September 11, 2012

Gary Jones said:

UBB and access to content
In addition to Jon's comments about the U&M Act it is my understanding that Canada also has "bait and switch" laws. The common practice of signing customers up on fixed fee plans, which might look attractive, then charging for absurd "overage" fees, especially compared to those in the US, is a clear illegal process of bait and switch. The CRTC must clearly demand that these companies disclose their actual costs, which are in the fractions of a cent area, and then try to justify charging usury fees, like $2 a GB.

If we have an effective CRTC controlling access to content then why are our channel selections so limited? If you compare, for example, Bell's channels to DirecTV, it's a joke. They have hundreds more channels and at a lower cost per channel. All channels, including foreign language channels from Europe, should be available on an "a la carte" subscription plan. And, please, no more "this video is not available in your country". It's insulting to Canadians.

As for "competition" in most areas consumers are limited to Bell or Rogers, both of whom have massive control over what's offered and they are hardly competitive. What they have in common is equally pathetic customer service. The CRTC should listen to the thousands of complaints from consumers and make improving customer service a condition before granting them even more power.
September 12, 2012

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