The CRTC’s low-cost data-only plan decision released yesterday was as unsurprising as it was uninspired. Under CRTC Chair Ian Scott, the Commission has abandoned any pretense of consumer focus, reverting to the days when Canadians perceived the regulator as a guardian of industry interests. The low-cost data-only decision, which is ostensibly designed to address a serious gap in affordable wireless services, will do little to solve the problem. Indeed, even the CRTC admitted that “none of the revised plans on their own would necessarily be enough to fill the gap identified by the Commission with respect to lower-cost data-only plans.” Those revised plans, which CRTC largely supported, would be laughably uncompetitive in most developed countries (as one expert noted yesterday, $30 for 1 GB is not a low cost data plan).
None of this should come as a surprise. As I noted last week, the Scott CRTC has effectively excluded consumer groups from the Internet code proceeding, threatened the viability of those groups with lengthy delays in cost awards, rejected an inquiry into misleading sales tactics, weakened ambitious broadband targets, and supported an Internet tax. My prediction that “with a decision due on low-cost data plans before the end of the year, it would not surprise if the CRTC adopted the latest proposals from the wireless companies that many consumer groups deemed inadequate” did not require much imagination.
Yet the blame is not Scott’s alone. Navdeep Bains, the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister, is ultimately responsible for the wireless file. The previous Conservative government may not have solved the wireless competition problem, but no one doubted that it prioritized affordability and was unafraid to challenge the major telecom companies along the way. Bains, on the other hand, responded with what has become the “thoughts and prayers” version of Canadian wireless, implausibly claiming that the decision was “a step in the right direction.” That has become the go-to response for Bains on wireless developments that do little to address the systemic problems with high Canadian wireless prices:
- When Bell introduced Lucky Mobile, a “low cost” flanker brand, Bains said “it was a step in the right direction.”
- When Shaw introduced lower cost mobile plans, Bains said “it was a step in the right direction”
- When the CRTC rejected calls to mandate MVNOs and settled instead on pursuing low-cost data-only plans, Bains said “it was a step in the right direction.”
- When the CRTC adopted low-cost data plans promoted by telecom giants that consumer groups say will do little to address wireless affordability, Bains said “it was a step in the right direction.”
With all these supposed steps in the right direction (even Scott was calling yesterday’s decision “a step in the right direction”), one would have thought that Canada would be closer to more affordable and competitive wireless services. However, the reality is that no one has carriers that generate more revenue with less usage than Canada, with consumer pricing that offers the least bang for the buck in the developed world.
Further, the suggestion that the CRTC will conduct a comprehensive wireless review by 2020 provides little reason for optimism. Given its anti-consumer approach, the Scott CRTC seems far more likely to accept the litany of “usual suspects” telecom arguments: investments in new 5G networks requires avoiding regulatory measures to facilitate competition, Canada has some of the best networks in the world, and net neutrality rules should not apply to 5G. Moreover, with consumer groups such as PIAC on the verge of collapse due to CRTC delays in cost awards, the steady marginalization of consumer voices at the Commission will in any event erode the presence of public interest perspectives at the review.
If the basic test for a government minister is to leave the situation better than they found it, Bains’ wireless strategy to date is a failure. Canadians still pay among the highest prices in the world and now face an industry-captured regulator that has demonstrated little regard for consumer concerns. Steps in the right direction are leading nowhere. Bains placed considerable hope in low-cost data-only plans as a response to concerns about wireless affordability but the disappointing outcome suggests that a more robust response is needed. Mandated MVNOs, a consumer-focused, universal access policy direction to the CRTC, aggressive use of order-in-council powers, measurable targets on wireless affordability and competitiveness, as well as a program to support public interest voices in the regulatory process are among the measures that are all long overdue.