Ian Scott to the Canadian Telecom Summit
November 17, 2020
Ian Scott, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
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Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. I am joining you from the CRTC’s offices, which are located on traditional unceded Algonquin territory. I would like to thank the Anishnaabeg people and pay respect to their ancestors.
It’s a pleasure for me to be involved in this summit again this year—even if we can’t all be in the same room. Nonetheless, I have a few ideas I want to share that fit well under your conference theme of Managing Disruption in an Intelligent Connected World.
That’s what we’re doing today, of course. And what we have been doing for the past eight months. We’re managing our way through a disruptive period of time—I daresay one of the most disruptive periods any of us has ever seen—through the use of connective technology.
And thank goodness for that technology. Imagine how our respective worlds of work would look if we didn’t have the benefit of broadband Internet and wireless connectivity during this pandemic. For some Canadians living in rural and remote communities, however, that world is a harsh reality which needs to be addressed. Not all of us transitioned smoothly into the digital world when the first wave of the pandemic hit. I’ll discuss Canada’s digital divide, and the steps we at the CRTC are taking to close ensure all Canadians have access to reliable, high-quality broadband service later in my remarks.
For now, though, I’d like to begin with a few words of appreciation for the work done by the companies you all represent to keep those Canadians you serve connected to their digital communities.
Extending services during the pandemic
When this pandemic struck in March, our worlds changed almost overnight. Suddenly, notions like working from home and holding virtual meetings—occasional occurrences for many of us—became commonplace. Most Canadians rose to the challenge presented by this disruptive pandemic by drawing on the connective tools at their disposal to keep their core work functions and everyday routines at least somewhat intact.
It’s thanks in no small part to the services provided by the companies that many of you represent that they did so.
So thank you for that.
But the message of appreciation runs deeper than that. As you all pivoted your operations to keep your employees and your customers safe during the early days of the pandemic, you also managed a significant jump in traffic on your networks. You did other things as well to ensure not only that the services you provided remained of the highest quality, but also that Canadians could continue to access those services when they needed them most.
You kept retail locations open for appointment-only visits for customers who needed in-person support.
You put a halt to service suspensions and disconnections for customers who paid late or who weren’t able to pay their bills at all.
You worked with customers to make payment arrangements that made sense for them.
You waived fees for data overages or removed data caps, and removed late-payment penalties.
You offered free channel previews and waived fees for educational content that was normally subscription based.
You donated devices and service plans to schools, students from low-income families, hospital workers and patients, and at-risk populations such as women in shelters.
Broadcasters created new content for distribution and gave away free airtime to local businesses that were struggling to survive.
What’s most impressive is that you did all this unbidden. No one asked you to do so. Government certainly didn’t tell you to do so. You did so with the knowledge that what you were doing was the right thing to do.
Those actions speak loud at a time when our digital lives have been transformed. Canadians depend on the services you provide to manage their way through this great disruption and to stay connected with their friends and families, their co-workers and their civic institutions.
So again, thank you.
Not all providers in other countries took this kind of action, by the way. This response was distinctly Canadian.
South of the border, the United States Federal Communications Commission drafted and urged providers to sign the Keeping Americans Connected Pledge. That pledge called for companies to do many of the same things you all did. And it was successful in the sense that it was signed by more than 800 providers. But the point I want to make here is that the initiative did not come from within the industry, but from its regulator.
I hope that as this pandemic endures and evolves, you will continue to keep the needs of your customers at the forefront of your decisions. You’ve set standards. You’ve raised the bar, and I’ll be blunt: I have expectations that you will maintain such high levels of service. From a consumer’s perspective, it is imperative you do. Because let’s be frank for a moment: this pandemic isn’t over. Not by a long shot.
While many of us have been fortunate to adapt our worlds to manage the disruption, countless others are struggling to keep their businesses afloat, their employees paid and their families fed.
Defending consumer interest
The pandemic has done other things besides turning our daily routines upside down. It’s created new avenues for online scammers to practice their nefarious craft. So let me turn and talk a little bit about how the CRTC has responded to a new wave of online threats that have emerged during the pandemic, as well as a number of other consumer-protection issues before us.
We received our first complaint about COVID-related scams in January. Between then and the end of September, nearly 10,100 more came through our Spam Reporting Centre.
Since those earliest days of the pandemic, we have worked closely with our partners across government to reduce the harm caused to Canadians by COVID-themed scams. We have reviewed more than 10,000 potentially malicious COVID-related domains, and flagged more than 1,200 for further review and action by our government partners. About a third of those sites—375 in total—were subsequently disrupted.
Those facts only underscore the need for the cooperation—within government and between the public and private sectors—to protect Canadians from scams. Innovative solutions are also needed—to prevent potential threats from ever materializing.
In July, the CRTC approved a pilot project proposed by Bell Canada and through which the company aimed to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to block certain types of fraudulent and scam calls. The results of that pilot are impressive. In its first 61 days, the system blocked more than 200 million fraudulent calls.
Bell has since filed an application to make this initiative a permanent solution—and we are assessing that application. If those early returns are any indication, this type of approach, which relies on using emerging technologies, could be an impressive new tool in Canada’s arsenal.
I will say, however, that the news isn’t all good on the consumer-protection front.
The results of the CRTC’s secret shopper project are in.
We launched this program last year in response to concerns about misleading or aggressive sales practices that Canadians had expressed to us, and to the government, over the past couple of years. The report, which is based on field work conducted in-person, over the phone and online in the first few months of this year, shows that the majority of shoppers’ interactions with sales staff were positive. That said, 20% of those reported interactions—one in five—were considered either aggressive or misleading.
On one hand, that’s progress. On the other, it’s not nearly enough progress.
A deeper look at the data from the secret shopper report shows worrying trends when it comes to specific subsections of the population. For example, about 45% of shoppers with disabilities and who faced language barriers indicated they had not been accommodated enough to make informed decisions.
My message to you today is to work harder to gain the trust of all consumers—and those audiences in particular. It may be difficult to do so, but at the end of the day, serving these audiences better means you are serving all audiences better. That, in turn, creates customer loyalty and trust—both of which are good for your bottom lines. These people deserve to feel just as accommodated as any other Canadian.
Our secret shopper report establishes a baseline from which we will work to ensure further progress. And we will continue to use this and other measures to improve consumer confidence.
Let me also bring you up to speed on three other consumer-protection issues that are front and centre for us these days. The first are the security measures put in place by wireless service providers to protect Canadians from fraudulent activities relating to SIM cards and mobile phone number transfers.
Fraudsters use these tactics to gain access to customers’ personal information, such as bank details, email accounts and social media profiles. Such exposures leave customers open to financial loss, data loss, ransom demands, blackmail and identity theft.
The industry has stepped forward to enhance the measures it has put in place to curb these fraudulent tactics. And it has done so voluntarily, which we commend you for doing.
Alongside the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, we’ll keep a close eye on the effectiveness of these actions to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to protect consumers. We will be satisfied only once this matter is resolved.
The other consumer-protection issue I wanted to discuss is the implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN framework. As you know, at the request of industry, the launch of that framework has been delayed until next summer.
The CRTC agreed to that deadline extension to give service providers more time to resolve the technical and logistical issues they faced, and to ensure that STIR/SHAKEN was successfully implemented.
When STIR/SHAKEN finally goes live, it will enable service providers to certify whether a caller’s identity can be trusted by authenticating and verifying the caller ID information for Internet Protocol-based voice calls. In turn, it will help Canadians know whether the caller ID is legitimate or whether it should be treated with suspicion before they answer their phones.
Another aspect of consumer protection before us at the moment surrounds the treatment of confidential customer information. The Public Interest Advocacy Centre has filed an application with the CRTC regarding the COVID Alert app and the role played by telecom service providers when it comes to protecting any data they collect through the app. Although not all of the issues raised in the PIAC application fall under the CRTC’s mandate, the application certainly raises some valid concerns for us.
At the end of October, we launched a proceeding to study those aspects of the PIAC request that fell under the purview of the Telecommunications Act. These include the role of service providers in handling confidential customer information, what constitutes confidential customer information, and any measures that should apply to providers when they collect, use or disclose such information.
We haven’t asked these kinds of questions about consumer privacy in some time, so this review is perhaps overdue.
Misleading and aggressive sales tactics, new security measures for mobile phones, new call authentication technologies and private-information protection are big issues for consumers. They’re big issues for us as well. We’re glad to work with you to help resolve these problems and make consumers’ digital lives safer.
Closing the digital divide
I’ve already touched a couple of times on the issue of connectivity and its heightened significance during this pandemic. I do want to continue to explore it, however. But in a bit of a different context.
Because while those of us living in major urban centres such as Halifax, Toronto and Vancouver benefit from a wide choice of service providers, and an array of data and broadband speed packages, that fact isn’t true for all Canadians. It’s not even close.
The unfortunate reality about Canada’s vast geography is that many rural and remote communities are chronically underserved by Internet technologies. They can’t access technologies that get them to the CRTC’s universal service objective standard for fixed broadband of 50 megabits per second download (Mbps), 10 Mbps upload and options for unlimited data plans.
The latest information available to us, and this is from 2019, shows that 45.6% of households in rural and remote areas can access the 50/10 unlimited data standard. That’s an improvement over the 40.8% that could access those speeds in 2018, but it’s not enough. There’s still work to be done.
Figures are even starker on First Nations reserves, by the way, where just 34.8% of the population can access the 50/10 unlimited capacity standard, compared with 31.3% in 2018. Moreover, in 2019, this kind of service was entirely unavailable to First Nations reserves in Newfoundland and Labrador, Yukon and Northwest Territories.
I invite you to continue working with these communities to make much-needed improvements.
Closing Canada’s digital divide has been a concern of ours for years. It has become even more of a priority since March, given the extent to which so many aspects of our lives have been moved online by the pandemic.
We expect that 90% of homes and businesses in this country have access to fixed broadband Internet services by the end of next year and complete coverage as soon as possible. I am pleased to say that we are tracking well toward achieving that goal. The latest data for the end of 2019 shows that connectivity in large urban centres has increased from 99.4% in 2018 to 99.6% in 2019, and overall connectivity has risen from 85.7% to 87.4%.
We’re on the right path, thanks to private-sector investments as well as government programs. Speaking of which, I was very happy to hear last week’s announcement from the Prime Minister that the federal government had increased funding for the Universal Broadband Fund by $750 million. That money will help bring broadband technology to even more Canadian homes and businesses in underserved communities over the next six years.
And the federal government is not alone. Provinces, too, have recently announced measures to spark connectivity projects in their regions.
We at the CRTC are doing our part to help. I am pleased to announce that the Broadband Fund will soon be supporting its first projects.
In August, we awarded $72 million in funding for five projects that aim to improve Internet access services to more than 10,000 households in 51 Northern communities—a large majority of which are Indigenous communities.
Four of these projects are located in Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Once complete, they will provide speeds of 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload with unlimited data to about a quarter of the households in those two territories.
The fifth is a project in northern Manitoba, which will give residents there access to speeds of 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload with unlimited data. Those speeds are lower than our universal service objective for fixed broadband, of course, but they represent a great improvement over the service that is currently available. And we consider this project to be an important interim step and that further improvements will be made in the future.
Those projects are just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the funding work ahead of us. We issued a second call for project applications under the Broadband Fund last November. The scope of that call was far broader. It was country wide, in fact.
So it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that by the time our second call closed on June 1, we received nearly 600 applications for funding worth a combined $1.5 billion. Obviously, that’s more money that the Broadband Fund allows, so our work is cut out for us. We’re reviewing the applications carefully with a view to approving those projects—some sooner than others—that will yield the greatest benefits in closing the divide in all regions of the country.
I’ve given you quite a handful of statistics and figures just now. If that kind of data interests you—and I know quite a few among you are keen on such information—the next edition of our Communications Monitoring Report is scheduled for release in December. This year’s report will be as comprehensive as ever, but will feature a new approach. First, in keeping with our digital-first philosophy, we will be releasing a streamlined version of the report. While there will be fewer charts and tables than you’re accustomed to seeing, this will enable a second important change – one that I think will be welcomed by our readership. Rather than staggering the release of data over several months, we will be publishing all the datasets at the same time in the Government of Canada’s Open Data portal.
So for those who want to skim quickly over the highlights, our report will provide everything you need. For those who love to dig deeper and compare and contrast metrics—about mobile device penetration across the country, for example—the Open Data portal is an ideal supplement.
One last piece that I think will be of interest to those who crave figures and analysis is our soon-to-be-released report on the future of television and video distribution. We have commissioned Omdia to take an in-depth look at online services in Canada and nine other countries, and to examine the effects of these services on television distribution. Our goal here is to bolster our strategic foresight capabilities by analyzing those factors in other nations that might also impact the evolution of online TV and video distribution in Canada.
That report is due out before the end of the year. Stay tuned.
Update on initiatives
I’d like to close my remarks with a brief round-up of some of the telecommunications issues that are before the Commission at the moment. Obviously, these are active files, so I cannot comment on their potential outcomes, but some updates are certainly worth sharing.
One of the elephants in our virtual room today is the question of the review and vary applications we have received for the final wholesale rates for aggregated high-speed access services that we set in August 2019. This matter is before the Commission for review, and I can’t comment any further on it, except to say that we granted a stay for the implementation of those final rates in September. The interim rates therefore remain in effect until such time as the process is completed. I should add that the stay decision is also being challenged before the Federal Court of Appeal.
I have said before and I will say again that when our Commission regulates, we do so with the public interest foremost in mind. We build a public record through the public consultations and public hearings we hold, and take into account all the evidence presented to us. We render our decisions based on that public record while looking back at past experiences and ahead—as best we can—to the future. As we do, we juggle at-times competing interests such as competition, affordability, investment, consumer interests and innovation. And we do so within the boundaries of the mandate and jurisdiction entrusted to us by Parliament.
That’s what we call regulating in the public interest.
Related to this matter is the consultation we launched in June to determine the most appropriate configuration for the disaggregated high-speed access regime across Canada. We are continuing to build the public record.
Two other proceedings before us touch on access to broadband. The first is a new proceeding we launched on October 30,through which we aim to explore possible solutions to the timely and affordable access to telecom poles for broadband distribution. I urge you to provide your valuable input to the public record.
This proceeding complements the work we’re doing with the Broadband Fund, and follows on the heels of a consultation we launched last December. In it, we looked at those barriers that can make it challenging to build or extend transport networks to underserved areas. We heard loud and clear from that consultation that the number-one barrier to deployment was access to telecom poles.
The other ongoing broadband proceeding relates to Northwestel—the incumbent carrier in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern British Columbia and northern Alberta. Given the extent to which the pandemic has highlighted the vital role played by broadband connectivity across the country, and in rural and remote communities in particular, our consultation will look at the state of telecom services in Northern Canada, and the steps that can be taken to ensure Canadians in the North have access to high-quality services at reasonable rates.
Initial comments are due on January 20, 2021.
The fourth proceeding I want to tell you about is our mobile wireless services review. I mentioned at this summit last year that we launched this review to examine the state of the mobile wireless market. Now that the consultation, public opinion research and the public hearing have taken place, we are in the process of analyzing the public record.
The last issue I want to highlight is our look into mobile wireless service plans and the extent to which they meet the needs of Canadians with various disabilities.
Under the current regulatory framework, retail wireless service providers must offer mobile wireless plans that meet the needs of Canadians with disabilities. They also must promote those plans to those consumers in ways that are accessible.
In June, we launched a consultation looking into whether we should take further action to ensure providers are meeting the particular needs of those consumers. That proceeding is currently paused as we determine if and how we add a public hearing component in a time of COVID-19. Whatever solution we come up with will hinge on the networks you manage and upon which we as a society have become so reliant.
As you can see, we have a number of important files open in front of us. And let me just say that despite all the complexities brought upon us by this pandemic, we have received a lot of very good, very well-informed input from all stakeholder groups. Thank you for this. Your input helps us build a deep and broad public record.
Throughout these remarks, I’ve touched a fair bit on the changes brought upon us all by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today’s virtual forum is but one example of how we’ve all met the disruption caused by this pandemic head on, and used the connective tools available to us to maintain consistency in our professional and personal lives.
We at the CRTC have seen our share of disruption from the pandemic. But other than to delay or postpone a handful of deadlines, we’ve largely maintained our operations. We had to, of course.
Business doesn’t stop for a pandemic. Indeed, when it comes to the communications industry, the CRTC’s business as regulator and yours service providers is amplified. From coast to coast to coast, Canadians everywhere are relying more than ever on telecommunications services to maintain connections with their workplaces, their families and their civic institutions.
Our work at the CRTC is business as usual. We continue to study issues, ask questions and weigh stakeholder input into those matters that affect Canadians the most. And we will issue decisions that will certainly affect the telecommunications industry in general and Internet and wireless service providers in particular.
And although we can’t meet in person to discuss such matters or hold conventional hearings at the moment, we remain focused on our guiding regulatory principles. We take into account the many interests presented to us through a rigorous process of public consultation that includes organizations such as those you all represent.
I look forward to continuing to work with you.
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