Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit
2014 ISP Summit
Nov 3-5, 2014
2014 ISP Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

Taking it to the streets

It is interesting to see telecommunications policy issues being covered by the general media. Of course, we expect to see coverage of communications issues in the business press. The sector is a large employer, makes massive investments in infrastructure and virtually every citizen buys communications products and services every month. Still, covering the sector in the business section is different from seeing coverage move to the front page or the general editorial pages.

Even then, it is perhaps more expected for telecom policy to be covered in The Washington Post. But it struck me as unusual for an OpEd to appear in The Detroit News.

In “Who is winning the broadband race?“, Richard Bennett makes an argument that resonates with thoughts I have expressed on these pages:

Too often, however, enthusiasts simply skim the surface of broadband statistics on speed and price and reach erroneous conclusions. While it certainly is the case that a dozen or so nations score higher than the U.S. on speed tests, it’s not always the case that the gap between the U.S. and the higher-scoring nations is significant; and even if it were, in many cases the higher speeds in other nations are caused by factors that have nothing to do with policy and regulation.

The US is in the midst of a review of broadband regulation, largely centred on a belief that its Federal Communications Commission (FCC) needs to be empowered to assert authority over network neutrality issues. Some of the proposals being floated would declare internet services to be regulated as “common carrier” services, contrasted with the long standing treatment as “information services”. Verizon filed a paper with the FCC arguing that such a declaration would not withstand a court challenge.

Bennett’s article concludes:

In reality, the nations that have treated broadband networks as public utilities are high on promises and low on results. France and Italy are the truest examples of the utility model for broadband; wired broadband in France is no faster than mobile broadband, and Italy has the slowest networks in the G7.

AT&T recently argued that some service providers are investing in regulation, rather than investing more in building networks.

It is great to see more citizens getting engaged in telecom policy issues. I like seeing coverage in the media. Unfortunately, a recent report on coverage of Net Neutrality said “Experts Agree: Majority of the Media is Missing Something on Net Neutrality” The Society of Professional Journalists hosted a discussion on “Why Media Should Care about Net Neutrality.”

Among many salient points made, there were two main takeaways:

  1. It is imperative for the media to get it right when discussing net neutrality, and
  2. The majority of the media don’t get it right.

Many similar issues are coming up in Canadian regulatory proceedings as we see in other jurisdictions. TV unbundling, wireless competition, wholesale internet access, net neutrality. These communications policy issues are complex and often benefit from looking at secondary and tertiary impacts. I have talked about the complexity in the past, referring to the need to think 3 moves ahead, like a chess master.

How can we help “get it right” in reporting?

How can we help drive even more engagement, and more informed engagement, in the processes by a broad spectrum of consumers?

Keeping up with the crooks

The CRTC is acknowledging that it is having a tough time keeping up with ‘miscreants’ placing unwanted telemarketing calls to Canadians.

In its latest report to Industry Minister James Moore on the operation of the National Do Not Call List, the CRTC identifies “Challenges and Opportunities.” The first “opportunity” listed deals with caller identification spoofing:

“A major challenge has emerged in the form of caller identification (ID) “spoofing,” which is the falsification of the phone number that appears on consumers’ caller ID displays.”

Caller ID spoofing is an important capability that was built into the phone standards to enable people to work from one location but show a different caller identification. This way, for example, a call centre can show the toll-free call back information for the underlying client, not the agent, who may be located half way around the world. Placing such information into the caller ID field is actually a requirement in the CRTC’s telemarketing rules.

But we have all been victims of caller ID spoofing that is done for less than honourable purposes. In some cases, the CRTC has found that the ‘miscreant’ operators have used the call identification of legitimate businesses to make their unwanted calls. In one such case, more than 30,000 calls per day were being made, falsely being represented as being originated by a well known, legitimate Canadian firm.

The CRTC joined an international inter-agency collective to combat caller ID spoofing. The Commission has acknowledged that “It is extremely challenging to enforce the Rules in such circumstances given the difficulty in tracing such calls to their origin, which is often outside of Canada.”

The CRTC says that “It is working with the private sector on a system to allow consumers to report spoofed calls by simply keying in a number on their phones.”

In a letter widely distributed to telecom service providers in early October, CRTC Telecom Vice-chair Peter Menzies said:

Notwithstanding the CRTC’s success to date in reducing unwanted calls, our ability to enforce the law has been hampered by caller ID spoofing which is used by certain telemarketers to hide their true identity. The telephony honeypot and other tools, such as *50, will enrich the much needed intelligence to address the problem of caller ID spoofing.

The *50 program will enable consumers to report abusive telephone calls, along with the associated call detail records, to carriers, reputational services and law enforcement, free-of-charge. These records will enable carriers and the CRTC to determine the origin of the call, thereby thwarting miscreants’ attempts to hide their true identity and provide the necessary information for investigations. The CRTC will be deploying *50 as a voluntary and pilot program for carriers in the coming months with the goal of formally launching the program in late 2015.

Keep in mind that there is already a “Call Trace” feature for customers to help law enforcement tracing of calls. In most cases, that involves dialing “*57″ immediately after hanging up on a threatening or abusive call. That feature puts a flag into a call detail record, enabling your phone company to only release to law enforcement personnel the correct record out of potentially dozens of calls you received that day. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in June [R vs Spencer], the police get the call information once they go to your phone company with a warrant.

The CRTC consideration of a different code number – *50 – raises all sorts of issues. Will consumers be confused by having two different numbers for call trace? Does the CRTC expect carriers to release the call detail records without production of a warrant?

Will this actually be effective in stopping calls from off shore ‘miscreants’?

How much are Canadians spending to maintain the enforcement infrastructure? The CRTC spent just over $3M in its enforcement branch and there was an additional $2.5M spent administering the do not call list and the complaint databases. The CRTC issued $1M in notices of penalties but it did not report how much of the $1M was actually collected. Note that any funds collected are sent to the general revenues of the government.

I continue to receive calls from air duct cleaning services and companies that promise to fix my credit score, or my favourite, “the technical department of Windows.” The most effective way to deal with them is very un-Canadian and very low-tech.

Just hang up.

Charging for paper bills

Is there really a difference between charging $2 for a paper bill and providing a $2 discount to those who opt for electronic billing?

In the minds of parliamentarians there is.

Either way, consumers who opt for e-billing pay $2 less than those who still get a paper bill.

But proposed legislation only bans the explicit paper charge, not the e-billing discount. The Broadcast Act is proposed to be amended with:

34.1 No person who carries on a broadcasting undertaking shall charge a subscriber for providing the subscriber with a paper bill.

The Telecom Act is proposed to have a similar amendment, covering telecom services providers, wireless and wireline and including internet service providers. large and small:

27.2 Any person who provides telecommunications services shall not charge a subscriber for providing the subscriber with a paper bill.

These are amendments to the Acts with questionable value for consumers. There are two ways around the proposed law. One is to raise the base price for everyone and then provide a discount for the e-billing customers. The other is for the company to simply not offer paper billing as an option. How many internet service providers or new entrant companies offer only e-billing options?

My member of parliament started a Twitter defense of the new legislation even before the omnibus bill was introduced:

He was concerned about seniors and low income Canadians who may not have digital skills or even on-line capabilities. My regular readers know that I share concerns about the failure in leadership to deal with digital literacy and connectivity for disadvantaged groups.

But the reality is that the industry already indicated that it would look after these groups.

The CRTC held a meeting on August 28 to try to get industry wide consensus on such charges for paper bills – in effect, trying to get a competitive industry to collude on whether they would all agree on charges to consumers. The CRTC Vice-Chairs reported:

those companies that charge paper bill fees have agreed to provide exemptions for customers who have no personal or home broadband connection, persons with disabilities who need a paper bill, seniors aged 65 and over and veterans of the Canadian Armed Forces.

So – there goes that rationale for the legislation.

In the meantime, we know that incentives for e-billing lead to dramatically higher adoption of such services. One would have thought that the government would have wanted to encourage the adoption of e-billing. Once again, we see a failure to maintain consistency with a national digital agenda. As I wrote before (in “Don’t do stupid stuff“):

Increasingly, it appears that Canada needs a digital conscience in Ottawa to teach the Obama doctrine: stop doing stupid stuff.

Threatening to introduce legislation to ban charges for paper bills is another in a growing list of actions that are at cross purposes with achieving policy objectives.

I have also written in the past: “it has sometimes been difficult to determine what the government would like to achieve.” It should be simple: Set clear objectives. Align activities with the achievement of those objectives. Stop doing things that are contrary to the objectives.

Years from now, will people look back at the proposed paper billing law and put it in the category of Canada’s Criminal Code ban on crime comics and other strange artifacts of a different era?

Legislating against hate

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Ottawa and St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, an article in the National Post reports the government considering new legislation that would make it an offence to condone terrorist acts online.

Sources suggest the government is likely to bring in new hate speech legislation that would make it illegal to claim terrorist acts are justified online.

… the new legislation was crafted before this week’s events and is not “trauma tainted.”

A number of years ago, I had been active in exploring issues associated with policing illegal content on the internet. We have explored the technical capability as well as many of the policy and purely logistical issues associated with identifying and dealing with hate and illegal content on the internet.

Recall, it was just over a year ago that this government repealed section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act, but at the time, we were told the government was committed to “buffing up the Criminal Code to ensure that [disadvantaged] groups would not be left open to hate speech.”

Over the past 8 or 9 years, much information has been gathered about hate and illegal content on the internet. As such, I thought it might helpful to review what has been written on this blog as the issue may become prominent over the coming months.

A partial bibliography of related blog posts can be found here:

The Canadian Telecom Summit explored the issue of illegal content on the internet in previous years. Should the issue be on the agenda in 2015?

Are there bounds on freedom of speech in an internet world? Should there be?

Canadian small businesses online

Are Canadian small businesses really lagging on the web?

CIRA, the dot-CA folks, marked “BDC Small Business Week” by publishing a blog post yesterday complaining “Canadian Small Businesses are Lagging in Online Presence“.

Once again, we were told that “Three-quarters of Canadians research purchases online, but only 41 per cent of small businesses have an online presence”.

The inference is that if 75% of Canadians are researching their purchases online, then presumably 75% of small businesses should be there to respond to the consumer queries.

But lets look at the source data. The CIRA Fact Book says

Only 45.5 per cent of Canadian businesses have a website. For Canadian small businesses – a significant portion of Canada’s private sector – this number drops to 41.1 per cent. While low, this percentage is on par with American businesses. In 2013, Google reported that 58 per cent of U.S. businesses do not have a website.

What’s that? Do you see what they did there? Mixing Canadian figures with the inverse of the US numbers?

We have 45.5% of Canadian businesses with a website, compared with only 42% of US businesses. Canadian businesses aren’t lagging and they are doing better than just being “on par with American businesses”; Canadian businesses are ahead of their US counterparts.

The source data for the CIRA Fact Book is Statistics Canada (Table 358-0193).

Size of enterprise 2012 2013
Total, all enterprises 45.5 46.2
Small size enterprises 41.1 42.3
Medium size enterprises 83.2 83.3
Large size enterprises 91.8 91.4

It starts to get really interesting when you look beyond the summary data and ask StatsCan to breakout the data by industry classification. Then we can see which sectors are really bringing down the averages. For example, only 27% of “Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting” businesses have a website, but that is a 50% improvement over 2012. Food and beverage stores are stuck around 22% and only 1 in 5 gas stations have a website.

The StatsCan data tells us that 100% of large enterprises reporting as Industry Code “Gasoline stations” have a website, but only 18% of the small businesses in that category have a site. That makes sense. I am more likely to look for a service station under the brand name, not the numbered company that happens to own the particular franchise location.

“Transportation and warehousing” is another category that has a significant difference between the small business figures (17%, interesting that this is down from 19.3% in 2012) and the large enterprise web presence (nearly 95%).

It is important to look at this data in combination with the number of businesses in each category in order to understand where the biggest challenges and opportunities can be found.

We need to do more to improve digital literacy among businesses and consumers. And, we need to improve conditions for businesses to adopt digital technology. But we also need more data and better analysis before proclaiming that Canadian small business is lagging.