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Has the CRTC really changed? Will they listen to Canadians or telecom conglomerates?

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It appears that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is starting to listen to Canadians. Over the last year, we’ve seen the CRTC publish customer-friendly new rules for wireless, set up a special task force to investigate extortionate roaming fees, and start a conversation with Canadians about the Future of Television (and watching TV content online!).

All this is evidence of a refreshing new shift for the CRTC under the leadership of Jean-Pierre Blais. Mr Blais has even echoed OpenMedia.ca’s call for the interests of Canadians to be “at the heart of our telecommunication system.” It looks like the CRTC is being transformed in a powerful and important way – and all because hundreds of thousands of Canadians have demanded better.

And how times have changed. This represents a fundamental shift for an institution that had long served and protected the bottom-line interests of Canada’s most lucrative Big Telecom companies: Bell, Rogers, and Telus. After all, it’s not so long ago since the CRTC, then under the chairmanship of Konrad von Finckenstein, told OpenMedia’s Steve Anderson that citizen concerns were out of scope during a crucial hearing on whether Internet access should be metered.

Things nowadays at the CRTC are by no means perfect. Let’s not forget their approval of telecom giant Bell’s takeover of our largest independent media company Astral. And more recently there was the Choicebook debacle where the CRTC put out an online consultation that was clearly biased by media and telecom lobbyists. The Choicebook survey was the second of a multi-stage process that followed extensive public consultations that OpenMedia took a leadership role in.

Our Connected Canada project ended up contributing the lion's share of input for the first stage of the CRTC consultation and highlighted the need to prevent telecom conglomerates from limiting access to content and services, to ensure access to public media, and other independent services, and to decentralize the telecom services market.

Yet, despite this call from thousands of everyday Canadians, the CRTC continued into Phase II -- the much maligned “Choicebook” phase -- by skewing the process toward Big Telecom’s interests. We think our Steve Anderson described it best when he said, “This ‘Choicebook’ initiative is meant to build upon input the CRTC have received but it appears to be geared toward the interests of industry lobbyists. The primary concerns of Canadians are almost entirely absent and even undermined by the clear bias in the CRTC’s survey.”

Yet, despite criticism everyday Canadians and experts like Michael Geist and Peter Nowak, Mr. Blais assured Canadians that their voices were being heard: "I’ve also been told, again and again, that people just want a chance to be heard. We are still figuring out how best to go about that. We are utilizing new tools and technologies like Skype, online consultations and social media."

However, while there have undoubtedly been problems and glitches along the way, those who have been following these issues for a while have noticed that the approach the CRTC is taking is more and more beginning to resemble that of OpenMedia. That is: open, participatory, and citizen-centred. Especially when compared to the case of Konrad von “out-of-scope” Finckenstein.

This positive change is thanks to citizens right across Canada standing up and demanding a voice. For years, our small team at OpenMedia has worked hard to amplify your voices - speaking up for Canadians at CRTC hearings, and crowdsourcing a positive new vision for affordable Internet, as well as a clear road-map forward for our broken wireless market.

We’ve experienced setbacks along the way, but working together with you our community, we’ve pushed forward and won positive changes that will benefit all Canadians.

While we’re now moving in the right direction, we still have a long road ahead to ensure Canadians get the open and affordable 21st century Internet they deserve. While it’s good to see (aside from the occasional missteps) the CRTC addressing the symptoms of our broken telecom market, we also need to see them start tackling the disease by boldly confronting the out-of-control power of Canada’s Big Telecom giants.

The CRTC needs to stop Big Telecom from blocking Canadians from accessing independent and affordable providers, or from prioritizing its own content over that of others. That means opening the networks to ensure that independent providers can operate on a level playing field with cost-based equal access to Canada’s networks. And it means laying down the law to out-of-control telecom giants like Bell who want to spy on everything their customers do online.

So…. lots done, but lots more to do. The CRTC is currently reviewing policies that could help fix our dysfunctional wireless market, as well as rules that could give independent Internet service providers a serious shot at overthrowing the arrogance of Big Telecom. But, in order for this to work, we need everyone on board to keep up the pressure. Here’s how you can help out, and get up to speed on the issues:

Let’s keep speaking up, Canada!

Written with input from OpenMedia.ca's Glyn Lewis

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