Ian Scott to the Canadian Telecom Summit
November 15, 2021
Ian Scott, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)
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Good afternoon, and thank you for the invitation to speak with you today.
Before I begin my remarks, I would like to acknowledge that I am joining you from the CRTC’s offices, which are located on traditional unceded Algonquin territory. I thank the Anishnaabeg people and pay respect to their ancestors.
A fair bit of water has flowed under the proverbial bridge since we last met. I’d like to use my time today to bring you up to speed on the steps we’ve taken to foster more competition in the marketplace, drive down wireless prices for consumers and ensure Canadians have access to the broadband services they need.
Before I get to that, I want to highlight how we are helping to protect Canadians from ever-present threats and bad actors.
My underlying message, which maps onto your conference theme for the next three days, is that the CRTC is working to build confidence and certainty in the market, and to maintain a world-class communications system that serves the public interest above all.
Building confidence in the telecommunications system
For some time now, Canadians have been frustrated by the unwanted calls they receive. Bad actors who have no interest in following the rules have been contributing to an erosion of confidence in the telecommunications system. I recently read about a lost mountain hiker who ignored calls from rescuers because he didn’t recognize the number. While this happened in Colorado and is an extreme example, the problem is no less prevalent here in Canada.
We have been tackling this problem head on with the help of the industry and our enforcement partners through a variety of approaches.
For instance, on November 30, STIR/SHAKEN technology will become a mandatory condition of service for telecommunications service providers. The technology, as I’m sure you know, will enable service providers to confirm whether a caller’s identity can be trusted by authenticating and verifying the caller ID information for Internet Protocol-based voice calls. In turn, the framework will empower Canadians to determine which calls are legitimate and worth answering, and which need to be treated with caution.
I was happy to conduct a trial of the STIR/SHAKEN technology with Ajit Pai, the then-Chair of the Federal Communications Commission, in December 2019. Ours was the first official cross-border call made using the technology, and a prime example of how we at the CRTC are working together with our counterparts in the United States to clamp down on the use of caller ID spoofing.
The newly appointed FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has spoken quite passionately on this issue, and she and I have already confirmed our commitment to cooperate further.
I want to acknowledge the industry for their efforts to implement STIR/SHAKEN in their networks. It’s a valuable tool for protecting consumers. I want to also encourage those who haven’t already done so to upgrade your networks to IP interconnection so STIR/SHAKEN can become an even-more valuable tool in your service to Canadians.
I would add that I have an expectation that they will not place the burden on consumers to pay for such protection. This is not a profit opportunity, but an opportunity to engage with and support customers, and to build their confidence in your ability to serve.
Most people likely perceive spoofed calls as a nuisance. The truth is, they’re more than that. They’re gateways for criminals to dupe hard-working people out of their money and their sensitive data. And they’re relentless. An average of 2,100 robocalls are sent to consumers in the United States every second. That’s why we’re acting to bring confidence back to the system through STIR/SHAKEN, and to develop a process to trace nuisance calls back to their points of origin.
We have also required service providers to either provide their subscribers with the ability to filter calls or to implement a call-blocking system. One company has taken call blocking a step further by making innovative use of artificial intelligence.
Bell Canada has applied to the CRTC to permanently block calls that are confirmed as fraudulent on the company’s network. That way, those calls never reach subscribers. Bell has been testing this technology over the past two years and it has blocked more than 1.1 billion calls—that’s billion, with a B—between July 2020 and October 2021.
We are currently reviewing Bell’s application, and I expect we will issue a decision soon. I am pleased to see that the industry is deploying technology to address challenges created by technology.
I would encourage other providers to consider ways they can do more to protect their subscribers against nuisance and potentially harmful activities on their networks.
The landscape of threats to consumers is shifting constantly, which is why I wanted to bring your attention to another initiative that is very much front and centre for us at the CRTC these days. It’s how we’re using tools like Canada’s anti-spam legislation (CASL) to protect Canadians from the darker and more dangerous elements of the web.
Our work under CASL has shifted a fair bit since the legislation came into effect in 2014. In those earliest days, we focused on ensuring Canadians did not receive marketing emails and text messages without their consent. Yes, we’re still doing that today, but our work has evolved to also protect Canadians from more harmful activities that expose their personal data to theft.
In the coming days, we will share details of an investigation involving more nefarious violations under CASL, such as phishing for Canadians’ personal and financial information and targeting established Canadian brands and financial institutions. The full scope of the problem is expansive, and we must work closely with our partners in industry and in law enforcement to continue to protect Canadians in this environment.
We took a step to that effect in January when we launched a consultation on a proposed framework to address botnets. In it, we asked whether there is a need for telecommunications service providers to adopt blocking techniques across their networks, and what safeguards would need to be put in place to ensure privacy, transparency and effectiveness. Our consultation closed in the spring, and we are now analyzing the public record with a view to issuing a decision next year.
Carrying on this theme of protecting Canadians, next year will be a significant year for 9-1-1 service. March will mark the launch of next generation 9-1-1 voice services. The change, which will be subtle at first, paves the way for the 9-1-1 service to move to an Internet-protocol based system. That in turn means that Canadians could eventually be able to relay photos and videos of an emergency incident across the 9-1-1 platform, and make medical data available to first responders before they arrive at a scene.
The CRTC has also been working with industry to implement new smartphone technology to help 9-1-1 operators and first responders better locate individuals who use their smartphones to call 9-1-1, to enhance location information and even to pinpoint a caller’s location inside a building. And we’ve required wireless service providers to configure their networks to deliver this potentially life-saving information, even if the person making the call does not have a data plan.
There’s more in store. It’s my expectation that the Commission will issue a decision next year on our public consultation into a simple, three-digit number to access mental health crisis and suicide prevention services.
For those who don’t know, we opened a public consultation in June where we asked whether there is a need for a three-digit number – such as the 9-8-8 code in the United States – to support Canadians who need mental health intervention services. The three-digit number could direct the caller to the appropriate mental health crisis or suicide prevention service in their area. Our consultation asked questions about a number of technical issues, including how much time it might take to launch such a service, how it should be deployed, whether Canadians should be able to send text messages to the service, and whether a caller’s location information will automatically be provided to the call centre.
The Commission is studying the public record on this matter as we speak, and, as I said, a decision will be forthcoming next year.
Please don’t mistake my brevity on these matters for a lack of gravity. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. I can’t overstate the importance of advanced mobile location technology and suicide prevention services. Advancements such as these will save lives.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time so far outlining some of the initiatives we have been working on, alongside industry, to enhance consumer protections and confidence in the marketplace. As I said at the outset of my remarks, our goal at the CRTC is to maintain a world-class communications system that serves the public interest above all.
I should add that our work in reaching our decisions on these and other matters is dependent on the input we receive. The opinions of stakeholders, whether they represent industry groups, public-interest groups or everyday people, is essential to our work.
We are mindful of the ways in which a diversity of opinions can positively influence the public record. That’s why we are looking at new ways of consulting with Canadians to ensure we hear from the widest possible cross-section of stakeholders, including Indigenous people and ethnocultural communities. We are working to understand how best to consult people from those historically under-represented groups in our processes so that we can be assured—and the public can too—that our decisions take into account the broad spectrum of the public interest.
Tools to enhance broadband connectivity in underserved regions
One of the tools we will certainly consider using to bring a greater diversity of voices into our consultations and our hearings will be broadband technology, as we did earlier this year with our very first virtual public hearing. I’ll shift gears for the next few moments to bring you up to speed on some of our recent work on the connectivity front.
If you’ll recall, I spent a fair bit of time at this event last year speaking about Canada’s digital divide, and the steps the CRTC has been taking to help close that gap. It’s a gap that has become that much more pronounced in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As we all know, the pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we work and brought a sharper focus on the necessity of high-quality broadband Internet.
I’m pleased to say that we have made some notable progress on this front in the past year thanks to our Broadband Fund. The fund, of course, will provide up to $750 million over five years for projects that improve broadband access service and mobile wireless services in underserved areas of the country.
To date, the fund has committed nearly $177 million to improve broadband services for about 28,000 households in 150 communities. We have finalized the statements of work for a number of these projects. The funds are starting to flow, and we expect to approve more projects soon, with an emphasis on those proposed in areas of the country where no provider meets the CRTC’s universal service objective.
The money we distribute through the Broadband Fund, by the way, is separate and distinct from the excellent work being done by ISED’s Universal Broadband Fund, as well as the provinces and the territories and other organizations, to bolster connectivity. I applaud those groups for their work, and urge them to continue.
I’ll share with you briefly an update on two projects being run by the Kativik Regional Government in the Nunavik region of Northern Quebec. These projects to bring broadband service to five communities were initially funded by the federal and Quebec governments. In March, we contributed further money via the Broadband Fund to help bring fibre networks to these communities.
This initiative is an excellent example of how municipal, provincial and federal governments are working together in Quebec to deliver significant improvements to broadband service across the province. Our combined efforts are supporting an Indigenous-owned community resource to bring service to the province’s north, and helping to build confidence in our broadband system.
Of course, Canada’s digital divide is especially pronounced in northern communities. Nunavik is one of many examples of Indigenous communities that are on the wrong side of this technological chasm. We are in the midst of reviewing the telecommunications services offered by Northwestel, which reach 125,000 residents in the three territories and certain communities in northern Alberta and British Columbia. During the first phase of our review, we asked for comments from residents and businesses on the affordability of telecommunications services, the quality of those services, and how greater market competition could be fostered.
Among other things, Northerners told us that all Canadians should have affordable access to services that are reliable and that allow the same functionalities of those available in the South, such as videoconferencing. Those comments have helped us identify the issues that are most pressing, and we will launch the second phase of our review soon.
Building a new policy framework
I’d now like to talk to you about some of our recent decisions in the telecommunications space, and to address some of the commentary that has been directed our way as a result.
Although aspects of both of our mobile wireless and high-speed access service decisions are being appealed to Cabinet and the courts, the Commission is convinced of the validity of our approach. Both are helping to lay the foundation for the continued growth of smaller service providers and new entrants into the market. Both are helping to support sustainable competition that will ultimately lower what Canadians pay for their telecom services. And both are helping to build confidence in the marketplace.
Let me explain.
Our mobile wireless decision, which we issued in April, opens the door for other providers to access the wireless networks of the big three national carriers, plus SaskTel. This will enable them to get to market faster in order to offer new services, more choice and affordable options to consumers—particularly in areas of the country where wireless facilities and competition are limited.
We know that there is a great deal of interest in the implementation of this MVNO access service. That’s good news. We have a process underway to review the associated terms and conditions and expect to provide clarity on these matters next year. I recognize that regulatory certainty is important for everyone involved. Change, however, doesn’t happen overnight in a country as large and geographically diverse as ours. Mobile wireless prices are heading in the right direction, and any decision that inspires more competition in the marketplace will ultimately lower prices and provide the wireless-bill relief that Canadians have told us they expect.
The result of ISED’s spectrum auction for the 3500 megahertz band is an early indication that some companies are interested in offering services beyond their traditional geographic areas, which suggests the potential for even more competition to the benefit of consumers.
Our decision also set an expectation that Bell, Rogers, Telus and SaskTel offer low-cost and occasional-use plans to customers that simply aren’t huge data users. It also requires those companies to file semi-annual reports to measure the effectiveness of such plans.
While we are currently reviewing their first reports, I remain of the view that the industry must do more to address the affordability of mobile wireless services, and in particular their accessibility and adoption by elderly and lower-income Canadians.
Another matter that has attracted a great deal of attention and commentary is our decision that set the final wholesale rates for aggregated high-speed broadband access services. Obviously, and as you know by now, we reversed course on implementing the rates we set in 2019. Rates, I will add, that were never implemented in the marketplace.
I’ll be frank: we got that initial decision wrong.
There were unquestionably errors in the initial decision. We are not infallible, and we could not ignore those errors once they were properly identified. We have always said we will review any decision if a party submits an application. Legislators anticipated that the CRTC may sometimes make mistakes or base its decisions on an incomplete record, and for that reason included the review and vary provision in the Telecommunications Act.
When a party submits an application asking us to review a decision, we address the issues in question seriously, fairly and in an independent manner. Because no one benefits from uncertainty in the market.
The work we at the CRTC do is not always popular or easily understood, especially when it comes to the costing of wholesale services. We recognize that. But I will say that in the process of reaching a decision—be it on rates for high-speed access services or any other matter you care to name—the process we follow is always based on sound administrative-law principles. We build a public record, our expert Commission staff analyze the evidence and Commissioners – all of whom share equal voting rights – make decisions. And we do all of this with the public interest foremost in mind.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of this high-speed access decision, some remain focused on perceived winners and losers. We, however, have moved on. The industry continues to evolve and move forward, and we’re looking at far bigger and frankly, much more productive things. Our focus is on the multitude of threads—the multitude of proceedings before us, if you prefer—that we are currently weaving together to create a policy framework that fosters more competition in the marketplace in order to reduce prices for consumers.
Those threads include more than our mobile wireless and high-speed access decisions. They also include our ongoing work in developing our high-speed access framework across Canada, including in the North, as well as a variety of issues relating to detailed technical and policy matters.
We’re looking at these matters, and others, with a goal of building a comprehensive regulatory approach that supports sustainable competition and balances the various perspectives of all stakeholders. Regulatory certainty, after all, is important to everyone. It’s important to consumers, who want better services at lower rates; to competitors, who want to explore opportunities to serve new markets; and to incumbents, who want the capacity to invest in, and expand, their services. That’s why we are focused on getting it right.
Canada’s telecom market has operated as a hybrid environment of facilities and service-based competition for nearly two decades now. Our approach recognizes the challenges faced by these various service providers and strives to find regulatory solutions that allow different service models to succeed. Always with the objective of better serving Canadians. It’s been successful in the past, having helped to foster regimes for toll competition, private-line business service, local telephone competition and Internet service.
We want Canadians to have access to high-quality wireless and broadband services and we want to see sustainable competition develop in the market. Judge us on our success in achieving those viable, long-term, public-interest goals.
For much of my remarks today, I’ve delved into detail about the work before the CRTC.
Whether that’s protecting Canadians from unwanted communications such as spam, spoofed telephone calls or more nefarious threats such as malware or botnets; whether it’s closing our country’s pronounced digital divide; or whether it’s building out a framework for wireless services that benefits consumers, our work is all about building confidence and certainty in the market, and ensuring Canadians have access to a world-class communications system at affordable rates.
But, and I’ve said this before, we can’t act alone on any of these fronts.
Our work is at its best when it’s complemented by supporting efforts from industry, and when it draws from the richest and most comprehensive public record possible. Providers plays a key role in implementing initiatives like STIR/SHAKEN and next-generation 9-1-1 service, and helping to build a public record on issues like the threat of botnets and a three-digit code for mental health crisis and suicide prevention services.
It’s also why we’re committed to bringing about an even-greater diversity of voices into our public proceedings, and to ensure the ideas and opinions of historically under-represented groups such as Indigenous people and ethnocultural communities are heard just as loud and just as clear as any other.
Let’s all continue to work together to advance these and other initiatives.
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