Jean-Pierre Blais at the public hearing on the review of basic telecommunications services
Notes for an address
18 April 2016
Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman
Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission
Check against delivery
Those of you who are familiar with CRTC proceedings will appreciate it is unusual for Chairs to make formal remarks beyond those made at the beginning of the oral hearing, but this is an exceptional hearing in many ways.
Exceptional in terms of its scope, the level of public participation and the importance broadband will play in Canada’s future economic and social development. So I ask you to pay careful attention to what I’m about to say. The timing of these remarks is key, because it is right before we start hearing from the largest internet service providers, such as TELUS, Bell, Rogers, CCSA, MTS, Cogeco, SaskTel, Shaw, Eastlink, Quebecor and CNOC, so it seems important to take stock at this time.
Like many things Canadian, my reflections start with the weather. It was a particularly warm and sunny spring weekend in the Ottawa region over the past two days. Although I had to go into the office yesterday afternoon in order to prepare for this week’s hearing, like many others in Southern Canada, I embraced the clear blue skies and sunny weather that accompanies this first real spring weekend.
In this part of the country, winter began late this year and it decided to overstay its welcome. Curiously Christmas was green and Easter was white, but we are making progressive advancements to warmer and sunnier days and we are finally putting behind many weeks of winter that seemed, at times, more like 10 years of darkness.
As I busied myself removing winter protections on plants, bringing out deck furniture and raking up the vestiges of winter, I had time to reflect. I’d like to share with you those reflections over the last week and set the course for our conversation over the next two weeks of hearing.
Overall, in a nutshell, witnesses that appeared so far have agreed to a self-evident truth. Today, in Canada, broadband is vital. Dictionaries define “vital” as being essential to life, to the existence of a thing, to the matter at hand, and to success, more broadly.
So unless you disagree with this conclusion, let us not spend more hearing time on this self-evident truth. We have other more important things to focus on.
My second reflection relates to what we appear to have heard so far, including this morning, which is particularly striking. Individual Canadians came to testify that they did not choose to face life in poverty or challenged by physical or mental disabilities. Yet, governments at all levels have chosen to ask these citizens to seek government services through digital platforms.
I myself witnessed departments propose cost-saving business cases while I was at Treasury Board Secretariat, premised on shifting citizenship -- citizen engagement -- from physical offices and telephone contacts to online. This has had consequences.
Vulnerable individuals burdened by social and economic insecurity came to testify that the calculation for the level of social assistance available from governance does not take into consideration the cost of connectivity that is nevertheless essential to schedule medical appointments, ensure success in school for their children, facilitate searching for a job, and to do many of the online activities many of the rest of us take for granted.
Officials from Nunavut testified that they do not have the capacity to deal with the unique broadband challenge facing the north. As a result, for instance, broadband capacity used for Government of Nunavut activity during the day lies idle at the end of the business day and cannot be redirected to the general population in the evening. There seems to be no clear way forward.
The Nunavut Broadband Development Corporation advanced that there should be one point of contact for Arctic broadband policy pointing out that the Canadian governance model is unclear. On broadband matters, they have had to deal with the CRTC, CanNor, Infrastructure Canada and the former Industry Canada.
In their view, a single federal entity needed to take the lead and coordinate a coherent Arctic broadband strategy to chart a clear way forward. They pointed to a 2012 broadband report of the International Telecommunication Union that identified thinking beyond electoral cycles as a best practice.
Municipal and other government witnesses, many of them elected officials and therefore very close to the population, shared their frustration towards the lack of leadership, the lack of coordination and information, and their own lack of capacity to address the broadband needs of their local residents, businesses and institutions.
One could not help but be struck by the uneven level of capacity in various regions to tackle these very modern and complex issues. Those that had made investments and advanced projects were also left wondering if they had made the right choices. As a result, there is a distributed patchwork of problems and solutions across the country.
These municipal representatives also mentioned the considerable gap in terms of wireless mobile coverage. The universal coverage available in certain parts of the country is irregular or non-existent in their regions, which, in some cases, are just a few kilometres away from large urban centres.
Concerns were raised regarding public safety on roads and highways, as well as forest trails and natural resource facility sites.
In addition to their concerns about public safety, they also expressed the opinion that mobile platforms cannot provide affordable alternatives to broadband.
Other witnesses acknowledged that the future deployment will require some sort of public private partnership. The metrics of success for private companies are at odds sometimes with the deployment of broadband connectivity and meeting the expectations of Canadians in unserved and underserved regions.
In areas of low population density, the economics of market forces are challenged. Companies are rightly mindful of such things as RPO and dividends and the return to bondholders and shareholder value and the return on investments on projects.
What was less clear was when and where such public private incentives were required and how they can, in certain circumstances, have unexpected consequences.
As you can see, the acknowledgement of broadband being vital to economic, social, democratic and cultural success of individuals and collectivities is a given. However, this only brings us so far. Three other questions must be asked.
First, where are the gaps to access to connectivity? And when I speak of access to connectivity, I think of it through a number of lenses, including geographic access to broadband connectivity; that is, the actual reach of broadband over the entire Canadian territory. Technological attributes of access to broadband connectivity; that is, the kind of characteristics broadband should have in terms of speed and capacity, latency, jitter, et cetera. Economic access to broadband connectivity, including, in its most extreme form, issues of unaffordability. Skill access to broadband connectivity, including issues of digital literacy and the capacity to make informed choices in a complex digital marketplace for the uninformed, the ill-informed or the folks who are simply overwhelmed.
The second question is, given those gaps, what are the best strategies in order to close or eliminate them?
And finally, who is in the best position to implement those strategies?
Clearly, the CRTC has work to do under its jurisdiction. This is the purpose of this proceeding. We will consider such things as basic service objectives and the potential use of redefined subsidy mechanisms. But beyond the CRTC, is there a role for others? Government. What level of government? The private sector through pure market forces, or a combination of all or some of these? And how do we bring coherence and coordination to the actions of many?
This all brings us to the most important question to be asked. Does Canada currently have a national broadband strategy?
A civil servant told me that a member of a foreign delegation had seen a document on the Digital Canada 150 strategy.
Apparently, the person was impressed and asked for details about the strategy in the brochure, the purpose of which was clearly to present a summary.
This person must’ve been disappointed with the representative told him there was no document with further details and that the brochure itself was the digital strategy.
As a non-partisan public servant for nearly 22 years as of next month, I’ve been trained to observe carefully platforms during elections. In our system of government, platforms define priorities. I note that broadband deployment and the issue of a national broadband strategy got very little, if any, attention in the platforms of the major national political parties. Pity.
There were some proposed for government investments. But who would disagree that just throwing money at a problem, whether in the area of broadcasting, telecom or any other area of private or public endeavor, without a carefully crafted and integrated strategy is like pouring money into sand. It quickly dissipates, provides little real growth or measurable results and is simply not sustainable.
I note the Telecommunication Act states, and I quote:
“It is hereby affirmed that telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canada’s identity and sovereignty. And that the Canadian telecommunications policy has as its objectives, among other things, a) to facilitate the orderly development throughout Canada of a telecommunication system that serves to safeguard, enrich and strengthen the social and economic fabric of Canada and its regions; b) to render reliable and affordable telecommunication services of high quality accessible to Canadians in both urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada; and h) to respond to the economic and social requirements of users of telecommunication services.”
We must also remember other elements of the legal framework. Specifically, section 7(f) of the Act states that we must foster increased reliance on market forces for the provision of telecommunications services and ensure that regulation, where required, is efficient and effective, just like the 2006 instructions.
The Commission must be mindful of these objectives when it carries out its legislative mandate. To my knowledge, no policy direction specific to broadband has been issued by the government pursuant to Section 8 of the Telecommunications Act.
Similarly, I’m not aware of any government initiative, Speech from the Throne priority, or other mandate letter suggesting any proposed change to our legislative mandate. So again, that legislative mandate must be taken as a given. And the Act, as it stands, will shape the course ahead.
Speaking of mandate letters, I note that the mandate letter of the new Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development asks him to:
“Increase high-speed broadband coverage and work to support competition, choice, and availability of services, and foster a strong investment environment for telecommunication services to keep Canada at the leading edge of the digital economy.”
The federal government has also proposed funding for broadband in its most recent budget. That being said, this funding doesn’t appear to be tied to a clear policy on broadband and its deployment in Canada.
There have been partnerships in the past between the CRTC and various government departments that allowed us jointly to meet policy objectives.
Ladies and gentlemen, in light of all this, it strikes us that this proceeding, launched over 12 months ago, may very well be the last best chance to get it right. A chance to create together a coherent national broadband strategy through an open and transparent process based on evidence from all Canadians, achieve to the extent possible through consensus, and implement it through shared responsibility.
Coordinated strategies can be successful. One need only look back at the work done in the 1990s under the shared action of the CRTC, TELCOs, and Industry Canada then under the leadership of their Deputy Minister the Honourable Kevin Lynch, who went on to be clerk of the Privy Council.
As a result, Canada developed a robust converged communication strategy that ensured for instance that a significant number of households in Canada could choose to be served by at least two wired communication service providers, a result envied by many foreign jurisdictions. Canadians benefited greatly from this.
Should we wait for others to act, to launch their own consultation? Perhaps. But the speed of the internet is relentless and time is not on our side for long quiet reflection.
Every hour that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadcasting strategy means unconnected Canadian citizens being disenfranchised from democratic debates, which are now ever present on digital platforms.
Every day that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means a Canadian who is socially and economically vulnerable continues to be profoundly disadvantaged.
Every week that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means many regions in this country are unable to attract or keep residents and businesses to ensure social progress as well as economic prosperity and growth.
Every month that goes by without a more robust Canadian broadband strategy means Canada is competitively disadvantaged as other countries move ahead and advance on their digital productivity, innovation, and competitiveness.
We are heading quickly, if we are not already there, towards a digital society and a digital knowledge-based economy, the society of algorithms. Canada needs a plan.
Which brings me back to the weather and my weekend activities. One of the chores was to bring out spring bulbs, which I force indoors over the winter in my garage. To get daffodils and tulips to bloom ahead of my neighbours requires planning. I’m admittedly a tad competitive in this regard.
The bulbs must be purchased in October when they are still available. Stored to prevent freezing. Planted in pots in late January or February, early enough for them to take root but not too early so they break ground when it is too cold to set them outside. This takes planning. Lessons learned from past experience, a micro strategy of sorts.
One wonders if we are ready to develop over the next two weeks and the subsequent stages in this proceeding our Canadian broadband garden.
To be clear, while the CRTC may be taking some leadership on defining the strategy, it will not be alone implementing and financing it. The important part of the discussion over the remaining days will be to understand the role of various players, citizens, governments, industry, and the CRTC.
So these are our thoughts, at this stage. I speak on behalf of the entire Panel. If you disagree with our preliminary conclusions and thoughts, please let us know. Our minds are still open. Nothing has been prejudged. After all, we have yet to hear all of the evidence and the arguments.
If the Twitterverse gets excited about what I just said, so be it. Join the conversation in the manner indicated in my opening remarks. Nevertheless, intervenors should take good note that we are reframing where we will be putting our priorities over the next couple of weeks. If you want to raise other priorities in your presentations you may, but don’t be surprised if our questions are on the subjects I just laid out.
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