The CRTC hearings and the Canadian Internet

The CRTC hearing on ISP traffic management practices has just ended. It provided no reason for optimism about development of a next-generation broadband infrastructure in this country, a resource that could bring unprecedented benefits to the entire economy. Instead, this proceeding and the new media proceeding treated regulation of the Internet as an exercise in damage control, and the advent of broadband as a nuisance that’s getting in the way of Canadian culture.

The Commission, the big ISPs and constituencies such as the cultural lobbies just don’t get it. For all their differences of opinion about the details, they share the view that the Internet is just another form of broadcasting. I’m particularly stunned that some of our most sophisticated and articulate fellow citizens, such as performers represented by ACTRA, see the Web strictly as a mechanism for job creation – jobs for them, not the rest of us.

The irony is that the more the cultural lobbies cry foul over the Commission’s refusal to replicate the broadcasting system online, the more the big ISPs and BDUs will succeed in getting their quid pro quo – permanent privatization of the Internet, with them playing the leading role of gatekeepers, just like in the broadcasting system. That will do nothing to further the public interest, or the interests of the cultural community.

Is there a better way?

In his first speech to the troops two weeks ago, incoming FCC chairman Julius Genachowski outlined his major goals for the agency. At the very top of the list he’s put the promotion of “universal broadband that’s robust, affordable and open.”

Not that the Obama administration is waiting for Genachowski to settle in. This summer, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (part of the Department of Commerce) and the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) are rolling out workshops and presentations around the country. They’re designed to provide first-hand help in applying for broadband grants and loans funded by the $4 billion allocation under the Recovery Act. American officials aren’t just “consulting” the citizenry. They’re rolling up their sleeves and explaining face to face how regular folks can benefit from next-gen broadband. The whole initiative – up on a site called Broadband USA – looks very thorough and well thought out.

It’s true the CRTC recognized in the new media decision that it has outlived its statutory mandate and recognized the need for a national digital strategy. But the more I listen to the national debate, the more I feel the Commission made a fatal error in deciding that its review would be confined to so-called “professional” content, while content of a personal nature was excluded.

The Commission may have been obliged to do so under the enabling legislation. But its decision has had a very unfortunate, if unintended consequence. Despite the fact that the 2008-11 proceeding was strictly about new media broadcasting, it’s now treated as a landmark dialogue about the future of the Internet in Canada. It was, of course, no such thing. In fact, I’d go further and say that the two proceedings – on new media and ISP traffic managment – have done affirmative damage by undercutting the prospects for a serious debate about Canada’s real-life Internet and the need for long-range, visionary thinking about next-gen broadband.