Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

Supporting junk science

I was disappointed to read an opinion piece in the weekend Globe and Mail entitled “When it comes to 5G health risks, what we don’t know might hurt us“.

The article plays to the anti-vaccination crowd, presenting data out of context and confusing issues to hype “the worry that the radiation from 5G networks could harm you.” The reader is left with the view that this is new, untested and unregulated technology. It isn’t. There are strict safety codes that regulate the placement of antennas and Canadian carriers operate their equipment far below the levels that have been found to be safe.

The Globe piece starts off identifying what the author, Eric Reguly, calls two ‘reality checks’ for the ‘utopian dreams’ that can be enabled by 5G: security; and, safety. The article then goes on to confuse the security issues with the issue of Huawei’s alleged trade sanctions violations. In fact, there are real security and privacy issues that need to be addressed when billions of devices are connected to networks, but the vast majority of those issues have nothing to do with Huawei. These security and privacy issues would exist even if all of the world’s network equipment was sourced from Canadian suppliers. But we’ll save security and privacy for another day – it will be the subject of a session on June 3 at The 2019 Canadian Telecom Summit.

There is considerable safety information available about radio frequency exposure and there have been numerous scientific studies conducted by serious research bodies. I have written about a number of these in the past and I thought the issue was exhausted years ago. For reference, you can look at these previous posts that talk about some of my responses to junk science and references to more credible research.

Also, ISED’s Spectrum management and telecommunications branch has a reference website, “Radiofrequency Energy and Safety” that addresses 5G:

The current Canadian limits already cover the frequency ranges that will be used by 5G devices and antenna installations.

Similar to current wireless devices and installations, 5G devices will need to meet RF exposure requirements before they can be sold in Canada. Antenna systems operators using 5G technology will continue to have the same RF exposure compliance obligations. Furthermore, compliance with RF exposure requirements will continue to be an ongoing obligation.

The failure by the author to present data from Canada’s governmental oversight bodies, including Health Canada’s Safety Code 6 (Limits of Human Exposure to Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Energy in the Frequency Range from 3 kHz to 300 GHz [pdf, 175KB]) is inexcusable. We should be discussing issues associated with 5G deployment in a serious manner.

As you might expect, we will be examining 5G from every angle at The 2019 Canadian Telecom Summit, taking place June 3-5 in Toronto. Have you registered yet?

Are we gaining any ground on diversity?

A little over 8 years ago, I wrote a piece called “Losing ground on diversity?” that looked at the composition of the executive offices of Canada’s major communications companies. In December 2010, just 13 out of 83 (15.6%) executive positions were filled by women.

What do the executive ranks look like today? A visit to the corporate websites shows little progress in women joining the highest echelons of Canada’s executive ranks over the past decade.

Of 67 listed corporate executives at these 7 companies, just 12 are women (17.9%). Although the percentage increased marginally, the absolute number of women shown in leadership has declined from 13 to 12. Only Sasktel has comes close to gender parity, with 5 women among its 11 member executive listings.

As I wrote in 2010, we need to identify whether there are factors that inhibit increased representation by women in our schools. “Are we doing enough to ensure that the industry benefits from the rich diversity that defines Canada’s cultural mosaic? Is there is sufficient diversity in the secondary school programs that lead to technology fields in our universities?”

As we drive digital literacy in Canada, we need to be sure that all Canadians are actively engaged.

Maintaining incentives to invest

Much has been written about the proposed Policy Direction released last week by ISED Minister Bains to the CRTC, and the Commission’s subsequent Mobile Wireless Services Notice of Consultation.

My regular readers know that I like to cover these kinds of things from paths that are less traveled, trying to bring a fresh perspective. As such, I’d like to examine last week’s releases from the perspective of incentives to invest.

The term “investment” appears 13 times in the CRTC’s notice of consultation; it appears just once in the proposed Policy Direction, and that instance is in relation to “stimulate investment in research and development and in other intangible assets that support the offer and provision of telecommunications services.” However, the proposed Policy Direction also speaks about “innovation in telecommunications services, including new technologies and differentiated service offerings” and ensuring “affordable access to high quality telecommunications services is available.”

That kind of language needs to be contrasted with the CRTC’s consultation that speaks in terms of the need “to make significant investments in network infrastructure” for 5G. The Commission’s concern about maintaining incentives for continued capital investment is set out in the core of the proclamation for this proceeding:

  1. The Commission is hereby initiating a proceeding to review mobile wireless services in Canada. This proceeding will focus on three key areas:
    • Competition in the retail market
    • The current wholesale mobile wireless service regulatory framework, with a focus on wholesale MVNO access
    • The future of mobile wireless services in Canada, with a focus on reducing barriers to infrastructure deployment
  2. The scope of each of these issues is described in detail below. In addition, parties may raise other matters, issues, or proposals that are relevant to and appropriate for a broad policy review of mobile wireless services. The Commission’s focus in this proceeding is to ensure that its mobile wireless service regulatory framework facilitates sustainable competition that provides reasonable prices and innovative services, as well as continued investment in high-quality mobile wireless networks in all regions of the country.

I observed on Twitter last week that network investment frequently falls into 1 or more of the 3 C’s: Coverage, Capacity, or Capability.

Many carriers have focused their investments on coverage and capacity enhancements, adding reach to the networks to previously under-served regions and adding capacity to increase data connection speeds and relieve congestion. Most carriers have upgraded capabilities for most regions to enjoy access to advanced fourth generation technology and are readying to deploy 5G.

Mandated wholesale access has the potential to impact the business case for investment. Of course, in core urban areas, there are strong incentives to invest driven by competitive behaviour, where carriers will ensure that their networks are able to offer top speeds as part of their bragging rights. However, it is clear that the business case for such investments is not limitless, otherwise we would see 5 bars of LTE-Advanced everywhere in Canada.

So, we know that there are already certain areas with lower population densities that already cannot support a business case for some carriers to invest. Now, imagine that that the carrier will no longer be able assume the same level of retail revenues. What happens to the business case for those marginal areas? If potential revenues decrease, one would expect that fewer areas will be able to support a business case for enhanced levels of investment. People in under-served areas today should carefully consider whether mandated MVNO and lower retail prices will help or hinder their cause.

Recall that when the current CRTC Chair was welcomed to his job, he received a letter from the Ministers of Heritage and of Innovation, Science and Economic Development, saying, “All Canadians and Canadian businesses deserve high quality telecommunications services at affordable prices.” At the time, I wrote “It is a delicate balance. Quality and coverage require significant levels of capital investment, especially in a country like Canada.”

The proposed Policy Direction echoes that language in the clause suggesting that the CRTC should consider the extent its regulatory measures “ensure affordable access to high quality telecommunications services is available.”

The CRTC consultative process will most likely be informed by engineering economic analysis, assessing the potential impact on investment in marginal areas for coverage, capacity and enhanced capabilities.

Maintaining incentives for investment requires a delicate balance.

CRTC timetables

Yesterday’s Notice of Consultation from the CRTC for the “Review of mobile wireless services” calls for an oral hearing beginning January 13, 2020. That is 319 days from now!

I was trying to think of when a telecommunications proceeding has had that lengthy a run up period.

The Wireless Code Notice of Consultation (2012-557) was issued October 11, 2012 and the hearing started just 109 days later starting on January 28, 2013.

The second Wireless Code notice (2016-293) was issued July 28, 2016 with its hearing opening 193 days later on February 6, 2017.

The original Long Distance proceeding started off with a mini-proceeding (1990-57) just to determine scope of the bigger proceeding. The preliminary process public notice (1990-57) was issued June 11, 1990 and it resulted in Notice 1990-73, issued August 3, 1990. The hearing itself began 308 days after the original scope proceeding, opening April 15, 1991.

So today’s #CRTC consultation is showing a timetable 11 days longer than the most generous view of the hearing that led to long distance competition in Canada. Has anyone seen a longer lag time between the opening of a CRTC telecom proceeding and the start of the oral hearing phase?

[It is interesting to note that the Long Distance Decision (1992-12) was released two years plus one day after the original public notice.]

Dealing with illegal content

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a proposal to create a “Moderation Standards Council” to address how social media platforms deal with and moderate what is termed as “harmful content.” I expressed concern about the proposal to create “an institution for content moderation.”

One bold path forward would be to have the CRTC mandate companies to create this council, a co-regulation approach similar to the Broadcasting Standards Council. The CRTC would mandate the work of the standards council, and set specific binding commitments to improve the transparency and accountability of content moderation.

Besides the fact that the CRTC lacks jurisdiction over social media platforms, we need to consider the very high bar that has rightly been set in defining what forms of speech are illegal, as contrasted with speech that someone merely deems to be offensive.

Social media sites are free to determine their own acceptable use policies that limit the kinds of content that can be posted. Do those policies operate within the bounds of the legal framework in the jurisdiction in which it operating?

A recent news item from France says that “Digital Affairs Minister Mounir Mahjoubi is now trying to purge social media of the racist bile and other hate speech spewed by often faceless users.” It was reported that he “has vowed heavy fines for online platforms that fail to remove hate speech in the 24 hours after it has been reported by users.”

And now, a report in the Globe and Mail says that the House of Commons Ethics Committee has “recommended imposing a requirement on social-media platforms to remove “manifestly illegal content in a timely fashion,” which includes hate speech, harassment and disinformation.”

Canadian ISPs already block certain classes of content that is deemed to be illegal and this without an explicit consent order by the CRTC under Section 36 of the Telecom Act that requires “Except where the Commission approves otherwise, a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”

Years ago, I wrote a number of pieces dealing with illegal content on the internet. I recall writing about the challenge in public opinion research on the subject.

On a superficial level, if you asked someone on the street if they want their internet service provider to interfere with the content being delivered, I suspect most would immediately answer “No.”

Would the results be the same if the questioner started off by saying: “some ISPs will block spam and viruses from reaching your computer at no extra charge. Is that a valuable service?”

It is pretty clear that there is some content that we want ISPs to block.

Clearly harmful content, like viruses, or fraudulent spam, can be considered to be forms of illegal content to better differentiate it from what I would term the ‘merely offensive’, a term I like to use for content with which I firmly disagree, but regretfully accept as being part of people’s right to be wrong-minded. The challenge is in distinguishing at what point the merely offensive becomes illegal.

In 2006, I wrote about a determination by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal that identified “hallmarks of material that is more likely than not to expose members of the targeted group to hatred or contempt.”

Perhaps that listing could serve as a starting point for one particular class of content that is illegal.

What other forms of content can be identifies as having crossed the line? Should Canada be more active monitoring and requiring the removal of illegal content?