CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais participated in a fascinating question-and-answer session at MIT this week in which he bluntly spoke out on a wide range of topics including cultural issues, copyright, and Internet policy. I’ll have a future post on his culture comments (his copyright remarks noted that the zero rating decision may help solidify ISPs’ status as common carriers), but his frank response on Internet investment was particularly noteworthy.
Readers of this blog may recall one of my posts from June 2016 in which I noted that Bell told the CRTC and the government that requirements to share fibre networks could reduce their investment in the sector, but that a top executive told investors that it was going to continue to build fibre networks since they were critical to the company’s future, offering significant cost savings and higher revenues. It would appear that the CRTC took note of the same contradictions. When asked about the CRTC fibre decision at roughly the 34 minute mark, Blais responded:
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The CRTC released its much anticipated Talk Broadband ruling yesterday, declaring Internet access a universal service objective, shifting the local voice service subsidy to the Internet, and setting much-improved speed targets of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload. The decision sparked a wide range of responses: Open Media labelled the decision historic, but business analysts largely shrugged, calling it “immaterial” and “neutral” for the telecom carriers. How to reconcile the competing perspectives?
From a big picture perspective, those that have advocated for a forward-looking Canadian digital policy that places universal Internet connectivity as the foundation have good reason to be pleased. The CRTC’s recognition of Internet access as a basic service is an important development that is long overdue. While critics downplayed the importance of the formal recognition for years, updating Canadian policy to include access to broadband Internet services provides an important signal to the market and the basis for further regulatory and policy steps if needed.
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Does the future of Canada Post lie in offering Canadian-based cloud services and rural broadband? The Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates thinks it might. The committee released a report yesterday on the future of Canada Post that ventures into the digital realm with several recommendations that will make little sense to those that closely follow digital policy in Canada. The committee report includes discussion that Canada Post could offer a Canadian-based cloud service, a Canadian social network, and rural broadband services. The recommendations include:
The federal government examine, with the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the possible delivery of broadband Internet and improved cellular service to rural Canada using Canada Post real estate to house servers and offer retail services to customers.
While there is unquestionably a need to address the rural broadband access issue in Canada, there is little reason to believe that Canada Post, which brings no particular expertise and no money to invest in the actual networks, is the right organization to solve the problem.
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Bell’s defeat this week at the Federal Court of Appeal over its MobileTV service marked the second high profile regulatory loss in recent months for Canada’s largest communications company. Last month, the government rejected Bell’s cabinet appeal of a CRTC decision on broadband infrastructure. The CRTC ruling means that companies such as Bell will be required to share their fibre networks with other carriers on a wholesale basis.
Bell’s appeal (and accompanying lobbying effort) was premised on the notion that CRTC regulation would force the company to reconsider its fibre investment. Indeed, its cabinet appeal stated:
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With one week still remaining in the federal telecommunications regulator’s hearing focused on the state of Internet access in Canada, the process has taken a surprising turn that ultimately cries out for leadership from Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development.
Jean-Pierre Blair, chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), opened the hearing two weeks ago with a warning: even if an ideal speed target could be identified, there was no guarantee of regulatory action. Blais urged participants not to confuse “wants” with “needs”, a framing that suggested the goal of the hearing was to identify the bare minimum Internet service required by Canadians.
My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that the remarks attracted immediate headlines that the Commission would not guarantee basic Internet speeds. The CRTC insists that only comments on the public record count, but it is obvious that the commissioners pay close attention to media commentary and social media postings.
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