Columnists

Josh Tabish
Steve Anderson
The CRTC, open access, and the future of high-speed Internet

| December 3, 2014
The CRTC, open access, and the future of high-speed Internet

Last December, telecom policy-makers at the CRTC began a year-long consultation on the future of Canada's Internet services. The Review of Wholesale Services consultation is examining how Canadians are served by the current structure of our telecommunications system, and the policies that govern it.

What's at stake is whether Canadians will be able to access affordable, independent, and reliable Internet services that support their everyday well-being.

Given the public interest mandate of the CRTC, it is important that these services enable everyday Internet users across the country to maximize their innovative and productive potential, and exercise their democratic rights in a free and open society.

Despite gains on several fronts, crucial steps remain in reforming our telecommunications sector to ensure it provides a wide range of cost-effective services. Sadly, Canada's telecom market is currently broken, and driven by oligopolistic forces that prevent Canadians from being able to fully benefit from the possibilities of broadband Internet.

For example, in 2013, large incumbent carriers (such as Bell, Rogers, Telus, and Shaw) controlled 92 per cent of the Canadian residential market. The result of this lack of choice is that Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for Internet services -- a finding confirmed by several independent reports, including the CRTC-commissioned Wall Report and the Organization for Economic Development (OECD)'s Communications Outlook.

Despite this challenging legacy, the CRTC's consultation could potentially improve our telecom system in two critical ways: 

  • First, the CRTC could overhaul open access rules to make sure all providers, large and small, can operate on a level playing field, by ensuring that smaller providers have cost-based access to the networks.
  • Second, the CRTC could extend this cost-based regime to next-generation ultra-fast fibre Internet networks, to ensure that independent providers can keep up with growing bandwidth demands.

Small businesses and independent service providers are best equipped to offer affordable new services to sections of the Canadian public currently underserved by the offerings of the major conglomerates. For this to happen, cost-based access to next-generation fibre networks is crucial.

Thankfully, the CRTC has a number of reasons to err in the public interest. For starters, their mandate is drawn quite clearly from section 7 of the Telecommunications Act, which emphasizes how the wider social and economic needs of Canadians must guide CRTC decision-making.

Past CRTC decisions have recognized this -- for example, when they recently rejected Bell's effort to increase payphone prices because it would have disproportionately impacted low-income Canadians. Similarly, several courts have acknowledged this mandate, including an influential Supreme Court ruling that pushed the CRTC to extend their engagement beyond industry concerns.

Given what's at stake, our organization has been an intervener in this CRTC process since the beginning. We amplified the voices of everyday Canadians by facilitating nearly 25,000 independently written submissions to the regulator.

Interestingly, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais acknowledged the impact of everyday Canadians in his recent speech to the Vancouver Board of Trade:

"the very small lanterns of thousands of individual Canadians often create a powerful beam of light. It's only when the stage is fully illuminated, by all those lanterns, that the full story becomes clear. It is only then that the full public interest comes to light."

While Big Telecom providers want Canadians to believe that fair open access policies will hurt investment in our telecommunication infrastructure, this claim simply doesn't bear scrutiny. Interveners such as the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) and Primus have thoroughly dismantled such claims by using the incumbents' own executive statements, annual reports, shareholder messaging, and financial data.

Where open access rules presently exist (albeit as a "cost-plus" instead of "cost-based" regime), incumbents have continued to invest in our networks and new offerings have sprung forth. The evidence is clear that open access rules for independent ISPs would not only lower prices and improve choice -- they are also critical to enabling innovation that would not otherwise be able to occur.

While cost-based access is an important solution in the near term, it is also important that the CRTC consider a more effective long-term solution by moving toward opening the networks through structural separation -- that is, putting an end to telecom companies controlling both their service delivery and also the infrastructure.

This is the most effective long-term fix for our broken telecom market. Doing so would put us in good international company, as this longer-term strategy already enjoys support from the OECD, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Sweden.

Canadians have been stuck with high prices and lack of choice for far too long -- and our digital economy is suffering. It is past time and common sense for the CRTC to mandate open access rules that work towards lowering prices, improving choice, and decentralizing control of our telecom market. You can learn more by reading OpenMedia's submission to the CRTC at https://openmedia.ca/CRTCsubmission

Steve Anderson is the Executive Director of OpenMedia.ca, a community-based organization that safeguards the possibilities of the open Internet. Josh Tabish is OpenMedia.ca's campaigns manager. A version of this piece originally appeared in the CCPA Monitor.

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