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The 1980s CRTC: The Commission Turns Back the Clock with Old-Style Regulation and Privileged Insider Access

The CRTC was long perceived by many Canadians as a captured regulator, largely inaccessible to the public as it dispensed decisions that safeguarded incumbents from disruptive competition. That reputation was buttressed by initial decisions on regulating Internet telephony, permitting Bell to engage in Internet throttling, and supporting a usage based billing approach that hampered competition. In recent years, some policies changed with the adoption of net neutrality regulations and the efforts of former chair Jean-Pierre Blais to prioritize consumer interests. Yet over the past few months, the CRTC under new chair Ian Scott seems determined to turn back the clock with a commission more comfortable with industry stakeholders and their priorities than consumer groups and facilitating competition.

Last week, I wrote about this trend with respect to lost transparency and privileged access for the industry. My post argued that public trust in the CRTC “is in danger of being frittered away as stakeholders fear a return of privileged access for industry that leaves the public interest stranded far from the centre of the Canadian communications system.” That post focused on the significant increase in lobbyist meetings, the presentation of the FairPlay site blocking proposal to commission staff months before it was available to the public, and meetings with the NFL while the issue of simultaneous substitution of the Super Bowl broadcast was before the commission.

The concerns about changing rules of access are matched by the equally troubling trend of CRTC decisions in which the consumer perspective is practically nowhere to be found. In just a matter of months, the CRTC has rejected policies that might foster greater wireless competition, dismissed calls for an inquiry into questionable telecom sales practices, and placed limits on cost awards for public interest organizations. The combined effect of those decisions points to a commission seeking to restore an old-style regulatory environment with less disruption both in the market and at hearings in Gatineau.

Last week’s CRTC report on “harnessing change” of programming distribution represents an even more dramatic return to the pre-digital days of old. While the report may be “digital-first”, its thinking is distinctly pre-Internet. In the commission’s view, the Internet is barely distinguishable from cable television and should be regulated and taxed as such. Despite ample evidence to the contrary – the CRTC’s own data says that 75% of wireless Internet access is not audio or video – it claims that Internet access is “almost wholly driven by demand for audio and video content.”

With that starting point, it is no surprise that it envisions regulating any audio or visual service that touches Canada and taxing all Internet services as if they were cable or satellite. In fact, the CRTC sets the stage for an unprecedented level of intervention, bringing digital news organizations, podcasters, and streaming audio services wherever located into its regulatory ambit. Moreover, it opens the door to Canadian households paying additional fees for all of their broadband and wireless subscriptions.

Rather than adopting a forward-looking approach, this proposed framework has the feel of something out of the 1980s, in which the interests of consumers are barely addressed, the production of Canadian content is assessed primarily through the prism of regulated support mechanisms, and the CRTC views its regulatory power as virtually limitless.

What might this new (or old) commission foreshadow for several outstanding policy issues?

The future of the Super Bowl simultaneous substitution decision is surely in doubt. The weak response from the major wireless companies on affordability might still be enough for a commission that is untroubled with increasing wireless costs for consumers. The FairPlay site blocking proposal, which should be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds alone, gets new life from a commission that thinks it can “harness change”. And though net neutrality is now firmly entrenched as government policy, as new issues emerge the CRTC may be less receptive to extending or fully enforcing the principle.

In short, this is the 1980s pre-Internet CRTC with a pro-consumer approach seemingly a thing of the past.


  1. Clearly, the bureaucrats at the CRTC have seen an opportunity to re-take their old power and authority and are dictating to commissioners various ways to sideline input from consumers and other non-industry sources.

    While the CRTC is a supposedly independent body, the government needs to have a Dutch Uncle talk with Ian Scott to explain a few facts of life about the digital era, government policy and the role of all stakeholders – not just Bell Canada, Telus and Rogers – in setting regulatory policy.

    Moreover, the fact that Bell and its astroturf “FairPlay” group had secret and advance access to staff and commissioners smacks of corruption.

    This is not acceptable in 2018.

    • It’s now the internet vs. the CRTC. They really should leave us alone and stick with their own. Their attacks may cause some companies to develop a revenue stream, which I assume is their strategy, but that is not the real value or purpose of public communication.

  2. Alexandre Leroux says:

    Hi Michael,

    Can you write an article about what we, your readers and supporters, can do to help? Should we register en masse and vote for the next CRTC exec composition? I have no idea if this is possible, but let us know how you think we can be effective in restoring the CRTC’s glory and focus on citizen wellbeing. I think/hope you might have enough supporters like myself to help. Thanks — Alex

  3. Mark Wilson says:

    Why hasn’t anyone taken the Minister of Canadian Heritage, Mélanie Joly, (or the Prime Minister) to task for appointing Ian Scott (a telecom lobbyist) to chair the CRTC? Could she not find someone without a vested interest in the telecom industry? What were her objectives, given her government’s commitment to net neutrality and wider, more affordable internet access?

  4. As the CRTC’s ruling observes, having to negotiate deals with and design services to meet the technical requirements of multiple ISPs’ zero-rated platforms across Canada would impose heavy burdens on content creators.

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