Monday, September 21, 2009

 

Paying for consumer voices

The subject of Fee for Carriage, cable companies paying for the privilege of carrying local over the air TV stations, is beyond the customary scope of this blog.

But Thursday's direction to the CRTC from Cabinet coupled with the response by the CRTC, raises an interesting point in respect of funding the participation of consumer voices.

Typically, the main participants in CRTC proceedings are corporate. Broadcasters or service providers have professional regulatory departments or specialized legal counsel are engaged to represent the interests of the company in written submissions or oral testimony.

To a lesser extent, consumers are sometimes engaged and in cases like the internet traffic management proceeding, thousands of individual emails or on-line comments become part of the official record to help inform the staff and Commissioners in making their determinations.

Often in major telecom proceedings, professional advocacy groups such as PIAC or CIPPIC or various national and provincial consumer associations participate. These groups have frequently been able to apply for their costs to be paid by the commercial service providers involved in telecom proceedings, but as the CRTC notes in its letter to the Deputy Minister of Heritage:
As you are aware, in broadcasting matters, unlike in telecommunications matters, the CRTC has no authority to award costs to consumer groups.
The payment of costs by telecom service providers dates back to a time of regulated rates of return, and the Telecom Policy Review Panel expressed concerns about such a formula in a market driven industry framework.
The Panel believes the government should review its approach to the funding of public interest group participation in telecommunications proceedings. The market-driven framework recommended by the Panel raises questions about the appropriateness of the current practice of awarding costs to such groups
Instead, the panel felt that funding for such participation should come from multi-year commitments by government to subsidize such participation, rather than costs awards imposed by the CRTC on individual telecommunications service providers.

Cost awards being sought in the internet traffic management case are getting extra attention. Bell asked for extra time to respond, since more than $430,000 was being sought for participation in that one proceeding, representing 20% more than all of the cost awards for all of the proceedings last year.

In its answer, Barrett Xplore expressed concerns about the levels of awards being sought [ pdf, 57KB]:
Despite the fact that [Barrett Xplore] was required to answer a significant number of interrogatories, that it presented comments and argument and appeared at the public hearing, the company managed to spend considerably less than each of PIAC, ARCH and CIPPIC on its legal fees (in fact Barrett spent less than half of what each of these parties spent on their counsel fees alone...)
The Commission gave parties an extension until September 25 to file their answers to the cost applications. The applicants will have the right of reply by October 5.

Comments:
While I applaud the fact that individuals may post comments on matters before the CRTC, there are two big problems with their process.

First, it is very difficult for an average citizen to file comment without a set of explicit instructions on how to do so. There's no reason for it to be so complicated or inefficient.

Second, I haven't seen any evidence to date that the CRTC even reads, let alone considers, the comments submitted. I have yet to see any mention of these comments in CRTC decisions, despite the fact that the CRTC ruled against the vast majority of these opinions in the cases that attracted the most comments from the public.
 
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