The CRTC is currently in the late stages of its review of basic telecom services, intended to “examine which telecommunications services Canadians require to participate meaningfully in the digital economy and the Commission’s role in ensuring the availability of affordable basic telecommunications services to all Canadians“. This review has been proceeding through written submissions for the past year, but is currently wrapping up the public hearings phase. You can watch these on CPAC through the video archives, or read transcripts of the presentations and the back-and-forth with the Commissioners.
What is all of this about?
Given the scope of the review, this is not an easy question to answer. First of all, it has become blindingly obvious that some level of internet access is required to “participate meaningfully” in society. This “self-evident truth” was expressed by CRTC Chairman Blais early on in the hearings. The question of whether broadband is a “want” or a “need” has shifted to more detailed questions around what sorts of minimum speeds (or other performance indicators) are needed, or what kinds of networks Canadians require. Should obligations to provide a certain level of connectivity be imposed on some intermediaries, or can we make do with “aspirational targets”? If obligations are imposed, who should be obliged, where, and to what standard? How much will it cost, and who should pay for it?
There’s been a lot of talk during the hearings about reaching those populations who face persistent challenges, including rural pockets that have been bypassed by the spread of connectivity. Connectivity for low-income populations has also been discussed repeatedly, since the digital divide carves through urban areas as well as the countryside. Surprisingly, digital literacy keeps coming up in questions from the Commissioners, an area that has rarely been a focus for providers, or covered by their support for MediaSmarts. All of this is interesting because the long-standing criticism of the digital divide concept was that it was overly concerned with the technical provision of access, and failed to consider the social obstacles, such as skills (digital literacy) and ability (including cost). Well, the CRTC is certainly thinking about these things, but actually regulating in these areas would be something new for the Commission.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the hearings has been the diversity of the participants. Speakers have included major and minor connectivity providers, as well other stakeholders. Since the ultimate stake is connectivity for the nation, the entirety of Canadian society is effectively a stakeholder, and written submissions have come from far and wide. The CRTC has agreed to hear presentations from advocacy groups, consumers, campaigners, policy wonks, not-for-profits, and populations at the thin edges of our networks. Some of these participants have appealed for very broad government interventions, and been pressed by Commissioners’ to comment on specific broadband targets or implementation strategies that the CRTC might actually have a role in.
Given my Alberta roots, it was especially interesting to see Axia’s Art Price present his regulatory vision, which understandably coincides with the business model the company is already pursuing in Alberta. Alberta’s SuperNet was held up as a model for the sort of “community interconnect grid” that could be pursued elsewhere. During the question-and-answer, Price noted the provincial government’s current lack of attention to issue, and sidestepped the question of what happens when a backbone is built but no one steps up for the last mile. Cybera’s presentation earlier today led to a more mixed view of SuperNet through the questioning of Commissioner Vennard, who has some experience with the history of this project.
It’s also been good to get a chance to hear from some of the hundreds of intermediaries scattered across the country, including ILECs, SILECs, IISPs, WISPs, cablecos, satellitecos, non-profits, regional networks, and co-operatives. I’ve tried to get a good sense of the diversity of these institutions through my research, but there’s still plenty of smaller ones out there that I’m obviously not aware of (like Chebucto Community Net). The incumbents and their facilities may be key to anything that results from this proceeding (because that is where new targets and obligations really matter), but it’s important not to overlook these more local institutions that have their own particular perspectives.
One remarkable part of the hearings was CRTC Chariman Blais’s address on April 18, in which he stated that the review might be the “last best chance to get it right – a chance to create, together, a coherent national broadband strategy“, and that the CRTC would be “taking some leadership on defining the strategy“. This is the sort of leadership that has long been lacking from the federal government, and indicates a role for the CRTC beyond simply tweaking existing rates, incentives, and obligations.
So where will all of this lead?
The range of actions the CRTC could decide to take (after the Commissioners have time to digest the whole process) is nearly as broad as the scope of the review. There has been some discussion online about what authority the CRTC could use to impose obligations for new networks, but various models for a way forward have been proposed by participants in the process, and any decision by the CRTC can generate years of dispute about its basis in regulatory law. The CRTC could also do nothing at all, and may feel like it has little ability to address these problems. After all, the Commission can’t fund the infrastructure itself, or ask the federal government to do so. The CRTC gets to set the rules under which intermediaries operate, through obligations and incentives, and it has never been the role of the Chairman to develop a “digital strategy” for the nation.
While we probably won’t end up with a government-funded open-access national fibre backbone, a new crown corporation, or obligations for incumbents to extend fibre across Canada’s north, it does seem that the CRTC will at least do something that looks significant. Given the comments of the Chair, and the Commissioners’ demonstrated understanding and recognition of connectivity problems, continuing with the status quo doesn’t seem to be an option. There will have to be a move that promises to address at least some of the remaining technical (territorial) gaps in connectivity. However, any action that’s truly ambitious here will mean the CRTC carving out a new role for itself. I think that without Cabinet support, a new national strategy or a new leadership role for the CRTC just doesn’t seem that likely.