CRTC plan to focus on the consumer leaves me skeptical

[Regulatory gag by D.Ellis]


A couple of days ago the CRTC issued its Three-Year Plan for 2012-2015. In response, Michael Geist has published a bullish comment entitled CRTC Places Consumers and Access at the Top of its Priority List. As Michael notes:

The CRTC priorities document identifies a single overarching objective: “ensuring that Canadians have access to a world-class communication system.” Given the myriad of policy objectives contained in both the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act, the singular focus on consumer access is a subtle but important change from the approach of the previous chair, Konrad von Finckenstein.

True dat. For the first time I can remember, the Commission has even let the much-neglected concept of affordability creep into its parlance. Michael points out that the three “pillars” chosen to focus this effort are summed up as “create, connect, and protect.” For me, that’s where the trouble starts. Here’s how the CRTC document explains the connect leg of this stool:

2. Connect – The CRTC’s activities under this pillar ensure that Canadians can connect to quality and innovative communication services at affordable prices and can have access to creative content (my emphasis).

In other words, affordability comes at an entirely predictable price for Canadian onliners. The Commission isn’t concerned over your personal content or use of the Internet for activities like messaging; instead it wants to ensure you have access to “creative content.” Well, we all know what that’s code for – not UGC, user generated content, since that’s not considered “creative” by Ottawa. It’s yet another sop to the Cancon regulatory-industrial complex – code for “yes, we’ll be sure our professional creators of content will have enough shelf space so that you can all catch lotsa homegrown webisodes and not get drowned by what the American online gorillas are hawking these days…”

Btw, the policy that will not die has another undesirable effect: it gives encouragement to Big Media when they want to sugarcoat more horizontal and vertical integration – like, say, the idea of a Bell Netflix, which popped up by accident in the middle of the Astral hearing. Or as Pete Nowak referred to it in today’s post: BellFlix. Pete continued: “[Bell CEO Cope] waved the Canadian flag, criticizing Netflix for not paying Canadian taxes or paying into supporting the creation of Canadian content.” Oh please, like Bell has been falling all over itself to support Cancon (see the recent guest post by Barri Cohen on how Bell Media has pretty much shut out indie TV production in Canada).

I also liked Pete’s skepticism about whether there’s actually a market for Bellflix:

The bigger obstacle to Bellflix is an amazing conceit that seems lost on Cope. Netflix’s tremendous success in Canada – snatching up about 10 per cent of broadband subscribers in less than two years, compared to six years in the U.S. – may just be because Canadians are looking to get away from traditional video providers such as Bell.

Amen. Anyways, all those bad vibes prompted me to write the following comment to Michael this morning:

Michael – Thanks for alerting the community to what may be an important change of direction. Nonetheless, I remain very skeptical as to whether this agenda will work in a way that is a) evidence-based and b) treats Canadians like media consumers with the right to be protected – rather than as a collective market for Cancon. You note the CRTC says it will “monitor broadband speeds and the choice of Internet service providers available to Canadians, as well as the prices paid for telephone services.”

“Monitor” is a slippery concept that can mean very little – like having “access” to broadband or doing “consultations” with the public. Will the JPB Commission ever do random-probability surveys of end-users? Will they stop bragging about BB “access” and start talking about who’s actually online? Will they ever start talking to Canadians in a way most can understand – as opposed to couching our entire network neutrality discussion in terms of ITMPs? Will the Commission “monitor” BB by taking measures of actual performance or rely on the industry and what they advertise? In other words, are they ready to do some real research – because if they’re not, then monitoring is a dead letter. And if the 2 enabling statutes don’t get updated (even if not merged), and the 2006 Cabinet Direction remains in place and makes everything hinge on market forces, I don’t believe the Commission will have the clout to do what it says it wants to do.

Then there’s the simple problem of putting a framework in place, only to ignore it. I’m thinking here of the consumer complaints process – and having you to thank, Michael, for making us cynics after you wrested those “secret” complaints from the Commission last summer. We discovered not only the bullshit about making public complaints unavailable to the public, but also the terrible job the Commission did in resolving those complaints. Witness the Rogers/CGO/WoW imbroglio, which it said was resolved after Rogers said it was resolved (no worries, we’ll stop throttling eventually).

What the CRTC really needs to make this stuff happen is a senior officer who isn’t always framing pronouncements for the licensees: a Director of Consumer Affairs, someone who knows how to speak to real people, how to study their needs and how to make their concerns get on the weekly agenda in Gatineau. Otherwise, the Commission’s corporate culture is never going to get past the decades of lip service to the great unwashed public… along with the deeply entrenched habit of making cheerful but entirely unfounded observations like the access industry is sufficiently competitive, when clearly it isn’t. All that said, I certainly hope your take is closer to what will eventually unfold than my gloomy prognostication.