Alicia Barin to the annual conference of the Canadian Communications Systems Alliance

Speech

September 26, 2022

Alicia Barin, Interim Vice-Chair of Broadcasting and Commissioner for Quebec

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC)

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Thank you for that kind introduction. I feel privileged to kick off your first in-person conference since the COVID restrictions, as one of the opening speakers.

Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin, Huron-Wendat, and Anishinabewaki Nations. I thank these Nations and pay my respects to their Elders.

For those of you from outside the province, bienvenue au Québec! I hope that you get to experience some elements of our unique culture while you are here. I also encourage you to spend some time exploring the Laurentians. I know some of you have signed up for golfing or cycling as part of this event, but if you haven’t, it’s a beautiful area to visit, especially in the fall.

Let me say that it is a pleasure for me to participate in Connect 2022 and to be among those who share my passion for Canada’s communications industry. I congratulate the conference organizers for putting together such a forward-looking program. This year’s event promises to be an opportunity for “connecting” with each other and with new ideas.

Earlier in my career, I worked with Astral Media, a Quebec-based broadcaster, which has since become part of the Bell Media group. At its peak, Astral comprised more than 80 radio stations across Canada, along with two dozen pay and specialty television channels. I was the Vice-President of strategic planning, and a big part of my role at Astral was to identify and implement profitable business models. As everyone here today recognizes, that is a never-ending challenge in a sector that evolves at an exceptionally fast rate.

I stepped away from broadcasting in 2013 to work in other industries, but now I’m back—although on the other side of the fence, as a regulator. And I can tell you that the work is just as challenging, because now—as the Interim Vice-Chair of Broadcasting and a Commissioner at the CRTC—your issues are also my issues.

I know that CCSA members are no strangers to challenge. Your commitment to both your customers and to your businesses is evident. You clearly recognize how these two elements are linked. And while the operating models and product offerings of individual CCSA members may differ, success absolutely depends on serving customers well.

The importance of the communications services that you provide was only heightened by the pandemic. Canadians have embraced digital communications technologies that depend on broadband and wireless delivery to a greater extent—out of necessity, but also due to evolving needs and behaviours. The result is something of a sea change. One example is that for many of us, working from home has become the norm. Our everyday vocabulary now includes words like Zoom, Teams and FaceTime.

That said, I welcome the return of live conferences such as this one. I’ve missed in-person meetings and look forward to speaking directly with some of you later today.

Adapting to change has been central to the CCSA for nearly three decades. I understand that the Alliance began when a group of independent cable TV operators banded together to tackle shared opportunities and challenges. Today, your members are much more diverse and provide a wide range of services in an ever more competitive landscape.

CCSA members face competition and have shown remarkable resiliency throughout periods of transformative change. Standing still has never been an option—particularly during the last 30 years. I recall a couple of technology-driven change scenarios that tested the sector’s resiliency, starting with the “death stars” of the early 1990s. If you are old enough, you will recall that the term applied to the direct-to-home satellites that threatened the entire Canadian communications sector.

Next came the game-changing transition from analog to digital in the early 2000s. This shift brought with it the tremendous opportunity of digital delivery, digitization of content and reduced capacity constraints, as well as the opportunity to offer Internet and telecommunications services. Today, we’ve entered the era of Internet Protocol and online video streaming. For some of you, this may be exciting; for others, it may be concerning. But as I see it, it is par for the course in this sector.

The truth is that it has never been smooth sailing for any sector of the Canadian communications industry—at least not for any extended period of time.

While traditional programming services, along with cable and satellite distributors, remain relevant in today’s communications landscape, the next content and delivery disruptors are already here: cloud-based video platforms, for instance, along with 5G and low-earth orbit satellites on the horizon. In the face of these and other new technologies, all players in Canada’s communications eco-system—regardless of size—must adapt. This includes content producers, broadcasters, and broadband and telecommunications service providers.

Regulators such as the CRTC must also adapt. Ultimately, we all serve the same customer—and success continues to rest on our ability to serve Canadians well in an evolving environment.

As a regulator, the CRTC’s focus is to protect the public interest. Our objective is to ensure that we have an accessible, world-class communication system that promotes innovation and enriches the lives of all Canadians. Such a system simply cannot exist without the contribution of independent operators like CCSA members. Canada’s vast geography, along with the size and location of our communities, makes it difficult to provide top-quality, customer-oriented services in a cost-efficient manner, particularly in remote regions. The CRTC acknowledges the important role that many CCSA members play in meeting this challenge.

Now I want to spend a few minutes on three CRTC files that I know are of interest to you, starting with the Broadband Fund. Since launching our first call for applications in 2019, the Fund has supported projects to connect more communities and households, and to improve mobile connectivity along major roads. So far, it has committed more than $225 million to projects that promise to improve fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure in more than 200 communities. I should point out that half of this funding has gone to smaller players.

Much of the feedback that we have received about the Broadband Fund has focused on two areas of concern: that our application process is onerous and that we contact only those selected for funding. Some applicants have expressed frustration because they cannot get information that could help them strengthen future bids. Unfortunately, the way the Fund was set up, the CRTC is not permitted to provide feedback.

We hear your concerns, however. The Commission plans to launch a review of the Broadband Fund policy in the coming months to ensure that it continues to achieve its intended purpose. I fully expect that CCSA members will participate in this review and share ideas for improvements to the Fund and its processes.

The Government of Canada’s stated goal is to ensure that all Canadians can access broadband by 2030. The CRTC’s Broadband Fund is one among many public-sector initiatives working towards this objective, which include ISED’s Universal Broadband Fund—as well as those administered by provinces, territories and other organizations. Each funding program has particular goals and criteria.

The CRTC’s Broadband Fund is intended to increase access in rural and remote parts of Canada. This includes Indigenous communities—which are some of the most underserved in the country. Among the applications we have approved to date, there are projects that will help improve Internet access in 89 Indigenous communities.

Thanks to the combined impact of all initiatives, good progress has been made toward the larger goal. We are not there yet, however, and I expect that there will be future calls for applications to the Broadband Fund.

The second file that we have been working hard on concerns the potential barriers to the deployment of broadband. We know that gaining access to telephone poles and other support structures can be challenging, and that untimely and costly access can hinder the deployment of broadband generally, and more urgently, in underserved areas.

Many of you participated in our consultations to identify barriers to broadband deployment, as well as in our parallel proceeding on access to support structures. The CRTC appreciates the input you provided. Rest assured that your views will inform our decision. But recognize that as an administrative tribunal, the CRTC must abide by the principle of procedural fairness, ensure that the public record is complete and analyze the evidence that has been submitted. Sometimes this takes longer than we would like. We appreciate your patience as we work toward completing these proceedings.

Finally, a third file which may interest you, and which certainly interests the Commission, is Bill C-11. We are closely following Parliament’s study of the Bill, which sets out to modernize the Broadcasting Act. Bill C-11 proposes to clarify the CRTC’s jurisdiction regarding online broadcasters. If adopted, the Bill intends to give us the ability to start leveling the playing field between traditional and online players, and to ensure that digital media players contribute to the broadcasting system. The Bill also intends to provide a more robust and nimble enforcement regime to ensure that compliance actions by the CRTC are focused and measured.

Should Bill C-11 receive Royal Assent, we will be ready to move quickly to launch public consultations and to gather views and evidence. The input of the CCSA and its members will be welcome in these future proceedings.

Ultimately, CCSA members and the CRTC share many of the same challenges. And both of us care deeply about the public interest. Part of the CRTC’s role is to foster the conditions that enable the communications system to meet the needs of Canadians.

I recognize that this is a tall order as you navigate yet another cycle of rapid change. But demand for content, connectivity and the services that you provide has never been stronger. I have every confidence in your ability to succeed—to harness the power of existing and emerging technologies and to continue to do what you do best, which is to connect, and connect with, the communities you serve.

I thank you for your attention and I wish you a very fruitful, enjoyable and inspirational conference. 

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