For the first six months of the new Liberal government, telecom watchers were unsure about whether Navdeep Bains, the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, would maintain the pro-consumer and competition approach that typified the previous government. The Bains ministerial mandate letter referenced the importance of competition, choice, and investment in communications, leaving enough wiggle room to shift in a new direction.
The full policy remains a mystery, but developments over the past two weeks suggest that a major change in approach is unlikely. With several big issues still to be decided – a plan for universal broadband access and review of the proposed Bell acquisition of MTS among them – getting a better sense of government policy is essential for business and consumers.
Last week, the government ended months of speculation by rejecting a Bell cabinet appeal of a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) decision on broadband infrastructure. In July, the Commission extended open access measures to fast fibre connection services, which it hopes will create a more competitive marketplace for Internet access.
The CRTC decision means that companies such as Bell will be required to share their fibre networks with other carriers on a wholesale basis. The approach matches the one used for slower DSL services that plays a key role in enabling an independent ISP community, leading to better services, pricing, and consumer choice.
The Bell appeal received controversial support from the mayors of Toronto and Ottawa, though Toronto City Council voted overwhelmingly to support the CRTC decision and more competition.
While supporters of the CRTC decision feared that the government might break with the past emphasis on competition, overturning the ruling never made much political sense. There was little to be gained by angering the hundreds of thousands of Canadians that rely on services from independent Internet providers and few believe that the major telecom companies will stop investing in new networks, particularly since they are still paid for usage on a wholesale basis. Implementing the CRTC ruling will take months, but the government’s decision to uphold it paves the way for future fibre competition.
While the Bell appeal captured the lion share of telecom policy attention, not to be overlooked is a recent exchange in the House of Commons in which the government affirmed its support for net neutrality. The issue arose in response to a question over Quebec’s plan to force Internet providers to block access to unlicensed online gambling websites.
Conservative MP Dan Albas asked how the government plans to respond to the Quebec bill, which he noted raises concerns about state-backed Internet censorship. Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly replied that the government believes in net neutrality, an affirmation that Canadians should have the right to access content and applications of their choice online.
The reliance on net neutrality in response to the Quebec bill is notable, given that there are alternative arguments such as exclusive federal jurisdiction over telecom policy and Charter of Rights issues. The Quebec government seems determined to pass the legislation, setting up a certain court challenge by Internet providers and perhaps the federal government. In the meantime, the Liberal government has confirmed that net neutrality remains a key part of its telecom policy position.
If government support for broadband competition and net neutrality remains intact, the next big question is whether the goal of four wireless competitors in every market is still part of the policy toolkit. That principle is at stake in the Bell – MTS merger review.
Manitobans enjoy some of the lowest wireless costs in Canada, as the presence of a fourth carrier in that province creates more competition and better pricing. With MTS out of the way, costs are bound to increase to levels more commonly found in the rest of the country, leaving the government with a crucial competition decision that will impact the future of wireless services in Canada.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.