You’ve been in post at the CRTC for eleven months now. What are your first impressions?
The past eleven months have flown by! And I can say that my first impressions continue to be reinforced.
The first thing that struck me is the critical importance of the sector that we regulate. Since taking on my role, I have had the privilege of meeting with hundreds of people across Canada. I have heard how important the communications sector is to every aspect of people’s daily lives. How Canadians rely on it. How, when it falls short, the effects can be devastating. And how, when it works well, it can save lives.
We have heard troubling stories about the state of communications in rural, remote and indigenous communities. We heard about one isolated community where students could not pivot to online learning during the pandemic because of a lack of connectivity. Their children lost years of education. We also heard about how communities relied on their local radio stations to keep their families safe during devastating wildfires this past summer. Stories like these underline the importance of the communications sector.
The second thing that struck me is the volume and scope of our work. To give a bit of context, the CRTC is an independent quasi-judicial tribunal that regulates the Canadian communications sector in the public interest. We hold public hearings on telecommunications and broadcasting matters and we make decisions based on the public record. Our ‘bread and butter’ are these decisions, notices, and orders, and we get more than 400 of these out the door every year. But these cases are by no means straightforward. They often tackle complex issues, like bringing high-speed internet to rural, remote and indigenous communities, improving internet and cellphone services competition, and modernising the regulatory framework for Canada’s broadcasting system.
The third thing that struck me is the depth and breadth of experience at the CRTC. The Commission has nine members, including a chairperson, a vice-chairperson for telecommunications, a vice-chairperson for broadcasting, and six regional commissioners who are located across the country. Each is an expert in their field and brings a unique perspective to the table. Supporting us is a team of expert staff. Our team has a huge depth of knowledge in all aspects of telecommunications and broadcasting. But what has impressed me even more than the deep expertise is our team’s passion and enthusiasm for what we do.
You have a strong background in competition regulation. Is this a sign of the times in digital communications?
I am always happy to be asked about competition. I started my career more than 23 years ago, working in the competition law group of a national law firm. I then went on to spend twelve years in a variety of senior positions at the Canadian Competition Bureau.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things that struck me when I joined the CRTC is the volume of work. To ensure we deliver on the most pressing and impactful issues, we set out three areas of focus: promoting competition to deliver reliable and high-quality Internet and cellphone services to Canadians at lower prices, modernizing Canada’s broadcasting system to promote Canadian and Indigenous content, and improving the CRTC to better serve Canadians.
So competition is an area of focus for us on the telecommunications side. We are promoting competition as a means to an end because we know that competition leads to more choice, affordability and innovation.
Let me share a concrete example of our approach to cellphone competition.
In May, the CRTC established rules that allow regional cellphone providers to compete across Canada as ‘mobile virtual network operators’ using the networks of large companies. With this access, regional providers can expand their reach and offer plans in areas they don’t already serve, giving Canadians more choice.
Our approach is already showing results. Canadians can go online today and find offers from both regional and national players that were not there a year ago.
Now that’s a concrete example of our work to promote competition, but to go back to your question – is a focus on competition a sign of the times in digital communications? Maybe. But I wouldn’t want to suggest that this is a short-term trend. Competition is essential for efficiency, innovation and market productivity – at all times.
What are some unique aspects of the Canadian telecoms and broadcasting industries? What do you see as the biggest policy challenges that the CRTC will have to face in these sectors?
There are many things that make the Canadian telecommunications and broadcasting industries unique and two big policy challenges that we face come to mind.
Let’s start with telecommunications. I have already mentioned some of the examples of what we have heard directly from Canadians on the importance of communications. I can’t emphasize that enough – and it sets the stage for the challenge I will mention – that Canadians rely on telecoms services in every aspect of their daily lives. From keeping in touch with family and friends, to working, to accessing health care and schooling, to being entertained. And the list goes on.
That’s why our focus in telecommunications is promoting competition to deliver reliable and high-quality internet and cellphone services to Canadians at lower prices, so that they can access these essential services at prices they can afford. The challenge is to ensure that we not only promote competition, but that we do so while also ensuring continued investment in Canada’s world class networks.
Networks are expensive to build, maintain and operate, especially given Canada’s unique geography and population distribution. Companies spend billions of dollars every year to upgrade and extend their networks in Canada. We have heard that it can take decades for those companies to earn returns on their investments, and that it can cost $25,000 to connect a single home in some rural areas. And unless there is a prospect for returns, investors will put their money elsewhere.
We can’t take regulatory frameworks that have been in place for years and simply apply them to our new reality.
So, we need a balanced approach. A concrete example is the one I already mentioned for cellphone services. I would add an important point to that example – although regional providers can access the large cellphone companies’ networks and sell plans now, they must build out their own networks within seven years. This ensures that there is continued investment in networks across Canada.
In broadcasting, the challenge that comes to mind is also complex. It has to do with the work we are doing to implement the Online Streaming Act. This legislation was adopted by parliament earlier this year and responds to the changing ways we consume content. It brings online services into the broadcasting regime and aims to ensure that Canadian stories and music are widely available.
The CRTC’s role in implementing the Act is to build a new regulatory framework. This is no small feat. The changes that are needed are substantial and complex. There are many interconnected issues to be addressed. Our challenge here is to make sure that the new framework not only addresses the current needs of the system, but that it is sufficiently flexible to deal with new issues and technologies. We want to develop an approach that is prospective rather than prescriptive and to create a system that is robust in the face of change.
That’s why we are taking a phased approach to building the framework, and are consulting with Canadians extensively along the way.
In the first phase – in which we are currently actively engaged – we are preparing for the changes to come. We are exploring how streaming services can contribute to the new Broadcasting Act’s public policy objectives to promote Canadian and indigenous stories and music. We will delve deeper into policy issues during the second phase and will devote the third phase to implementing our decisions.
We have chosen to structure the process this way because we can’t take regulatory frameworks that have been in place for years and simply apply them to our new reality. Square pegs don’t fit in round holes.
All along the way, as I mentioned, we are engaging with Canadians to ensure that we have a robust public record on which to make our decisions.
What are the technologies on the horizon that excite you the most?
That’s a tough one. My starting point here is that nobody knows what the future will bring. But we do know that we need to be ready for emerging technologies that are just around the corner.
The CRTC is continuously tracking trends and gathering information through research, partnerships, and public consultations. We have seen the positive impact of technologies like low-earth orbit satellites in providing high-speed internet to rural and remote areas, which is particularly promising for connecting Canada’s far north.
These are the types of technologies that excite us the most – the ones that help connect Canadians.
What was the last book you read?
The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz.
Coffee or tea?
Coffee in the morning, tea at night.
Dogs or cats?
My poodle insists I say ‘dogs’.
Early mornings or late nights?
Whatever it takes!