Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne unveiled the government’s proposed new telecom policy directive yesterday, hailing it as a “historic step.” However, a closer look at the policy suggests that the only thing that is history are any immediate hopes for a more competitive communications marketplace in Canada. Once again, the government has shown itself unwilling to take a strong stand in favour of consumers and competition, instead releasing a directive that largely retains the status quo and sends the message to CRTC Chair Ian Scott to stay the course. Indeed, the primary purpose behind the announcement would appear to be an attempt to shield the government from criticism over its decision to leave the controversial CRTC decision on wholesale Internet access intact, thereby denying consumers the prospect of lower costs for Internet services.
While the new proposed policy directive features much needed details and helpfully replaces the 2006 and 2019 directives that often conflicted and enabled the CRTC to pay little more than lip service to the issue, it sends a strong signal that it is happy with the Commission’s current approach. For example, the directive’s summary on measures to address wholesale Internet access are all about the status quo: “requiring large companies to continue to give access to competitors” or “directing the CRTC not to phase out the existing model for wholesale access.” These are not instructions to change.
The same is true for mobile wireless competition. Rather than using the opportunity to accelerate competition through mobile virtual network operators, the CRTC is instead directed to improve its hybrid MVNO model “as necessary.” A full MVNO model? The government says it is prepared to support it “if needed.” Based on the current market, it apparently believes it isn’t needed.
Universal access also falls into the same status quo, with the CRTC directed to “continue” implementing its Broadband Fund. Meanwhile, the references to building better regulations better involve the status quo, since the CRTC is directed to “to use the tools available to gather the necessary information to make sound decisions while being more proactive in strategic planning and market monitoring”. If it isn’t doing that already, what is it doing?
Rather than addressing foundational competition problems, the government instead emphasizes consumer issues, which is a symptom of the uncompetitive marketplace. Measures include addressing unacceptable sales practices (an issue the CRTC was initially reluctant to address), mandating broadband testing, and establishing a stronger CCTS. Nothing wrong with these proposals, but a more competitive market would address some of these issues without the need for new redress and complaints mechanisms.
In other words, this is distraction document, not a historic document. It largely represents the status quo from a government and Minister that has emerged as the most big telecom friendly in decades. Indeed, the unmistakable message to CRTC Chair Ian Scott is that the government is comfortable with its current approach, even if Canadian consumers are not.