Memo to Michael Hennessy on the CRTC, broadband data and ICTs

Dear Michael – I’ve just had a look at the last two blog posts on your page: “Hard rain falling on CRTC” and “Let’s spend as much on ICT as Obama is spending on cash for clunkers.” I have a couple of thoughts I couldn’t pack into tweets.

The first thing to strike me was the post you wrote on August 11 on Canadian spending on ICTs got zero comments, whereas the piece you posted Thursday on blowing up the CRTC is at 38 comments and counting. It’s not just the number, it’s the tone: comments full of vitriolic ad hominems about other ad hominems (“Shut your Pie Hole…”). Ironic on a blog written by a corporate guy who lets the dogs run free and isn’t embarrassed to say he owes his living to the Evil Regulator (okay, that was an ad hominem, but bear with me).

Killing the messenger

You’re right to say the “design of regulatory bodies should follow the strategy not lead it.” On the other hand, having long since fired Bell for both voice and DSL, I’m not too happy about the Commission letting them screw even more with the GAS, since that undermines the whole point of having resellers. Non-facilities-based competition doesn’t work. So what else is new? Compared to having a serious discussion about, say, who owns the last mile, FTTx, homes with tails – some items to put in the comments file for your piece on Obama’s clunkers broadband strategy.

As to your point that dissolvethecrtc represents a wholesale change in how disinformation about the CRTC circulates – I disagree. Bad ideas do move much faster on the Web and there’s lots more of them. But aside from the CBC, few Canadian cultural institutions have been so poorly understood as the Commission, and we didn’t need the Web for that. I think going online made things both better and worse for those of us who need access to the CRTC’s resources. The Web saved us from having to make trips to the regional office in snowstorms. But I can also attest that the appallingly bad data architecture of the Commission’s Web site reduces even my best 4th-year communications majors to tears of frustration.

On balance, I lean towards your more sympathetic take on the Commission’s role – not surprising when regulatory affairs is part of your life. What surprises me about the CRTC haters is that if they’re reading a blog like yours, they should know by now that regulators become captives of those they regulate, and those they regulate benefit from being party to the arcane rituals that can produce 50,000 pages of testimony – and public hearings from which the public is effectively excluded, well-intentioned efforts at e-consultation notwithstanding. It’s good to be regulated, because that makes you part of the priesthood. But anybody who thinks dissolving the priesthood will make rapacious incumbents play nice and usher in the ascendancy of consumer welfare needs a serious reality check.

Broadband mantras

So what’s the problem here? While you and I seem to agree it isn’t bias in particular CRTC decisions, I don’t get your blame-new-media argument: “a new type of thinking now popularized in a world of instant messaging where reason is made sacrifice to speed,” as you put it. Sure, IM’ing the BF in my classroom instead of listening to the instructor’s genius ideas is irksome. But if the national dialog on the CRTC is bogged down in bullshit, it ain’t because the dialog picked up too much static crisscrossing the digital ether.

Much of the problem has been the agency’s own comeuppance, at least until recently. Take your issue with broadband and the propagandizing you lay at the doorstep of the OECD and its fellow travelers – “all who repeat the mantra Canada is falling behind in our broadband leadership.” IMHO you’ve got that one backwards. The dominant mantra is the one shared by the Commission with its co-conspirators in the mutual fan club. Take, for example, the version intoned at the new media proceeding by counsel for a really big MSO (March 10 transcript, paras 9613-14):

“The Internet is the nervous system of the economy and broadband access is critical for a country’s future. In this regard, Canada has an enviable record. Today, Canada’s broadband connectivity exceeds that of every other G8 country.”

There’s your mantra. Or the first half at least. The other half is the all-important message that, despite our winning position, the incumbents need to keep making “huge investments” to keep up with all those pesky customers that keep downloading all those damn videos, bla bla.

The origin of this worldview is one single solitary piece of data cherry-picked from an ongoing OECD study that comprises some 40 different metrics on the state of broadband, in five categories: penetration, usage, coverage, prices and speeds (May 20, 2009 update).

Some of these, like average monthly subscription price, rank us 21st out of the 30 member countries. With the sole exception of Germany, that puts us in last place, not first place, among the G8. But we’re just getting warmed up here. When you measure affordability by factoring in how many advertised Mbits/s you get for your money, Canada drops to 28th place, right behind Turkey. As far as I can tell, the numbers here take full account of high-speed cable. But in 10 years, neither ADSL nor DOCSIS will be the platform of choice. It’ll be fiber. And as of last December, when the OECD average for fiber penetration came in at 10%, we still weren’t even on the graph – zero %. (I’ll leave for another time whether it will be good for the Internet as an open platform to have cable MSOs trying to replicate cable TV online – the “TV Everywhere” syndrome.)

At the risk of more pedantry, we could then move on to other sources that, until recently, were always left out of the debate. Among these are much bigger studies like the ITU’s ICT Development Index (covering 154 countries), which shows Canada dropping in the overall ranking (2002-2007) from 9th to 19th, and doing even worse on sub-indexes like usage (4th to 21st). This shakes things up, sometimes in ways that contradict the OECD’s numbers (like broadband prices). Leaving aside the gory details, it’s heartening to read in your post that “the ITAC community can count on support from TELUS on pushing an ICT agenda.” Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

CRTC throws down the gauntlet

When the new media decision was released on June 4, the Commission had a bombshell for us. Continuing the exemption – yawn. Referring to the Federal Court the issue of whether ISPs can have their common carrier cake, then eat packets as they fit – sigh. CRTC calls for a national digital strategy – zowie! Make that a double zowie.

First, the Commission did the unthinkable. After being roundly criticized by many participants for its framing of this proceeding (including me), the regulator lobbed the ball right back at the geniuses on Parliament Hill, telling them plainly the legislative framework is broken and needs to be fixed. Help, this is the regulator calling, we can’t regulate any more. Not with two enabling statutes telling us to party like it was 1985:

“The Commission recognizes that issues raised in relation to matters of taxation, copyright, privacy, spectrum management, and convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications industries, among others, are all interrelated and warrant a coordinated approach” (para 76).

And “zowie” number two? That would be the Commission’s tacit admission they’ve been serving up baloney about our global broadband “leadership.” Instead of sounding complacent, this decision reminds us that the rest of the developed world is ahead of Canada in thinking through the challenges of convergence and digital technologies. The Commission’s new benchmarks  (para 74): “the Digital Britain Review, Digital France 2012, New Zealand’s Digital Strategy 2.0, Germany’s iD2010, and Australia’s Digital Economy Future Directions Paper.”

I call that news. Did the CRTC haters miss this whole part of the conversation? Do they think Minister Clement is going to save their bacon after he dissolves the CRTC? Does the Harper gang have any interest in actually formulating a digital strategy? Are ICTs code for “business as usual”?

Stay tuned for some rhetorical answers to these rhetorical questions, including a fair shake for broadband tax credits for large telecom providers. Working title: “Minister Clement steps up to the plate and shoots himself in the foot.”

Your humble servant and (old) VanM fan