Mark Goldberg


www.mhgoldberg.com





Losing sight of the public interest

Sometimes, I think the Public Interest Advocacy Centre loses sight of its primary raison d’être: “legal and research services on behalf of consumer interests, and, in particular, vulnerable consumer interests, concerning the provision of important public services.”

I recently wrote [see “Strange bedfellows”] about how PIAC is acting in a coalition with the pulp and paper industry in a CRTC review of paper billing practices.

In another CRTC proceeding, examining ways to control consumer fraudulent wireless customer transfers (“SIM-swapping”), PIAC filed a letter seeking disclosures that again left me wondering what the public interest organization is thinking. In that proceeding, the CRTC asked a series of questions of the parties, including seeking more details on methods being developed to thwart the purveyors of fraud.

Some of the responses [such as this one by CWTA] have portions redacted, with a claim for confidentiality. CWTA wrote “The information submitted contains detailed fraud prevention measures, and its release would enable fraudsters to better understand the measures implemented by the industry to protect Canadian consumers from fraud, thus circumvent these measures and expose consumers to further harm.”

One would have thought the reasons for this is somewhat self evident.

Last week, PIAC filed an application for public disclosure. “PIAC is in receipt of the heavily redacted responses to these RFIs, as well as the responses regarding implementation of the CWTA’s proposed (confidential) measures to address SIM-swap fraud, which fail to provide any meaningful information nor even the expected date of implementation of the CWTA and industry’s secret protocol.”

That is actually a good thing, isn’t it? In the public interest, wouldn’t PIAC want to help make sure that these public disclosures “fail to provide any meaningful information nor even the expected date of implementation of the CWTA and industry’s secret protocol.”

Wasn’t that precisely the idea behind the redactions?

PIAC writes “the responses argue that keeping this information confidential is important to protect the information from being disclosed to fraudsters who could circumvent the purported controls and/or to shield this information from competitors.” PIAC goes on to express “dismay” at the “lack of transparency” and the “clandestine approach” that has “not only deprived consumers of access to vital information but also denied them of an opportunity to engage in a well-informed dialogue on this serious issue.”

According to PIAC “The specific information and data being withheld is timely and relevant to SIM-swap victims and all consumers. Consumers need to have access to these details to be able to provide input and raise any concerns they might have at this stage, rather than after the subject measures are implemented.”

Why? Consumers can provide input on requirements without the details of the implementation.

PIAC claims “Adoption of security measures by keeping consumers in the dark is unfair and unnecessary.”

It is unclear how satiating PIAC’s voyeuristic curiosity will lead to better operational procedures than those developed by professionals bearing the potential risk of financial liabilities if methods fail, coupled with a review by regulators.

At the risk of publicly displaying fraud control methods, it is difficult to see how the public interest outweighs the risk of disclosure.

Aren’t internal fraud prevention methodologies an area that just might merit less transparency?

Can we keep the drapes closed when reviewing procedures to counter fraud?

How leaders can slow the flow of junk science

“Radiocommunication and broadcasting services are important for all Canadians and are used daily by the public, safety and security organizations, all levels of government, wireless service providers, broadcasters, utility companies and other businesses.”

That’s how Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains opened his response to a petition calling for cell towers to be banned within 305 meters (1000 feet) of schools.

The petition, presented by Liberal MP Ron McKinnon (Port Coquitlam, BC) apparently on behalf of some constituents, read:

Whereas:

  • It has been proven by L. Lloyd Morgan, Santosh Kesari and Devra Lee Davis in their study “Why children absorb more microwave radiation than adults” that children are more vulnerable to the effects of exposure to radiofrequency/microwave radiation due to their thin skulls and developing brains;
  • No laws currently prevent the installation of cell towers near schools and playgrounds;
  • Safety Code 6 has not had a major update in the last 30 years despite the number of new technologies created during this time; and
  • MWR from wireless devices has been declared a possible human carcinogen.

We, the undersigned, Citizens (or residents) of Canada, call upon the Government of Canada to:

  1. Update Safety Code 6 to restrict the installation of cellular towers/antennas within 305m of all schools and playgrounds; and
  2. Request a buffer zone for playgrounds and schools.

The 2014 Morgan, Kesari and Davis study (referenced in the petition) can be found here. I won’t go into the numerous problems with that paper, but note that the authors do not appear to call for changes to tower siting.

Indeed, as I have written before, “If you want to reduce exposure to radio frequency (“RF”) energy from mobile devices, then we should be putting base stations in every lightpost in the city.”

It would probably drive the petitioners crazy, but the way to reduce exposure to RF energy in schools would be to move towers closer, not farther away. The greatest exposure you have to mobile EMF radiation is from mobile devices, not the towers. How can you minimize that exposure? As I wrote,

If you are concerned about being exposed to RF energy from mobile services, then it seems to me that you would want to limit to output required by the devices. These are the transmitters that are closest to you, whether you own a device or not. The radios in these devices adjust power based on the strength of the signal from the tower. So, my logic goes that if you want the phone to dial down the power, make sure that it has access to 5 bars of network signal. The logical progression is that we need more towers in order to reduce exposure to RF energy.

The response to the petition from Darren Fisher, Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health, said “Based on the available scientific evidence, there are no health risks, including to children, from exposures to the low levels of radiofrequency EMF emitted by cell phones and antenna installations.”

It further addresses some of the misstatements in the preamble of the petition. “It is misleading to say that Canada’s guidelines have not been updated. Rather, Safety Code 6 was updated as recently as 2015, to take into account recent scientific data from studies carried out worldwide.” Further, “No single scientific study, considered in isolation, can prove or disprove the existence of an adverse health effect.”

Minister Bains’ response stated clearly, “no adverse health effects will occur from exposure to RF energy at the levels permitted by SC6 [Safety Code 6].”

This petition should have been turned back by the member of parliament. The rules don’t require MPs to accept a petition, and “In accepting to present a petition, an MP is not necessarily agreeing with the opinions or request set out in the petition.” Still, one would hope that our elected leaders would be equipped well enough with the tools to educate constituents, and refute junk science.

In the COVID-19 era, there is lots of new junk science being published in sketchy pseudo-academic journals, such as the “Journal of Biological Regulators and Homeostatic Agents” that proudly proclaims in its call for papers “Easy and fast submission: No registration; No password; No papers to be filled out; No submission by invitation”. Last week, it published (and then apparently withdrew) a gem of disinformation “5G Technology and induction of coronavirus in skin cells”, authored by a group from Rome, Italy; Saginaw, Michigan; and Moscow, Russia. The abstract read, in part ”

In this research, we show that 5G millimeter waves could be absorbed by dermatologic cells acting like antennas, transferred to other cells and play the main role in producing Coronaviruses in biological cells. DNA is built from charged electrons and atoms and has an inductor-like structure. Inductors interact with external electromagnetic waves, move and produce some extra waves within the cells. The shapes of these waves are similar to shapes of hexagonal and pentagonal bases of their DNA source. These waves produce some holes in liquids within the nucleus. To fill these holes, some extra hexagonal and pentagonal bases are produced. These bases could join to each other and form virus-like structures such as Coronavirus. To produce these viruses within a cell, it is necessary that the wavelength of external waves be shorter than the size of the cell. Thus 5G millimeter waves could be good candidates for applying in constructing virus-like structures such as Coronaviruses (COVID-19) within cells.

Fortunately, the National Institute of Health is now showing this paper as ‘withdrawn’ and the original Journal is no longer showing it on its website. You can find a scathing review of the paper on Extreme Tech. It should never have been listed by NIH in the first place.

Retraction Watch has a review of the paper’s retraction in its post, “Paper blaming COVID-19 on 5G technology withdrawn” and Elisabeth Bik, writing in Science Integrity Digest, says it may be the worst paper of 2020.

More agencies need to be bold in identifying and clearly responding to junk science. In his response to the petition, Minister Bains ended with a more conciliatory tone than I might have used.

ISED has a collaborative and consultative antenna siting policy that ensures land-use authorities (LUAs)¹ have a say in the location of towers in their communities… Working together, LUAs and proponents can find solutions that address reasonable and relevant concerns or point the way to alternative antenna system siting arrangements. Cooperation between LUAs and proponents through clear and reasonable protocols can result in the development of new and enhanced wireless services in a community-friendly manner.

I might have more clearly defined what “reasonable and relevant concerns” can be. For example, ISED and the proponents (including carriers, public safety agencies and other non-commercial entities) should be sympathetic to aesthetic concerns and responsive to finding solutions.

Despite the obvious hesitation to antagonize any segment of voters, shouldn’t our leaders be willing to call out ungrounded fears and disinformation being spread?

If it walks like a duck, and sounds like a duck, can we agree to clearly calling out the quack?

Fulfilling his census mandate

Back in November 2015, I highlighted some of the more interesting elements of the mandate letter handed to Minister Navdeep Bains when he was first appointed to lead Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development. Among the expectations was “Restore the long-form census and update legislation governing Statistics Canada to reinforce the institution’s independence.”

And indeed, a week before the mandate letters were issued, he had already ticked off that box, having made the announcement to reinstate the mandatory long-form census the very next morning after he was sworn in as Minister.

Canadians are reclaiming their right to accurate and reliable information. With the 2016 Census of Population program, communities will once again have access to the high-quality data they require to make decisions that will truly reflect the needs of their people, businesses, institutions and organizations.

Next year is a full census and the Minister and Statistics Canada are continuing to reform the data being collected about Canadians. In a recent article, Minister Bains wrote, “The 2021 census will include new or improved questions on minority language rights, ethnic origin, Indigenous experiences, labour, journey to work, gender and Veterans.”

Statistics Canada “The Daily” included more details on the “Road to the 2021 Census of Population: The questionnaire.” Anil Arora, Chief Statistician of Canada, said “We all depend on key socioeconomic trends and analysis from the census to make important decisions that affect our families, our neighbourhoods and our businesses.”

I’ve frequently written “We need more data” to help with our understanding of who is online – and perhaps more importantly, who isn’t online and why. For example, the “Survey of Household Spending” contains some valuable information about who has a computer and a broadband connection, but it is now produced every other year and it takes more than a year to get results. Can we do better?

Improving the census is a step in the right direction, but even more is needed to help with our understanding of how to deliver digital services to Canadians.

When a smart city plan isn’t so smart

A couple weeks ago, I received a press release from the city of Beaumont, Alberta, announcing “Beaumont in talks to host one of Canada’s fastest fibre-optic networks.”

The press release reads, in part:

The city is negotiating with a consortium that includes Jacobs and Florida-based Smart City Capital, LLC to build an ultra high-speed, open-access network in Beaumont beginning later this year.

The project would be structured as a Public-Private Partnership (P3), with a major investment from Smart City Capital, Jacobs leading the project design and delivery, and the City of Beaumont providing access to public rights-of-way for the fibre.

This will be an open-access network. Because any internet service provider will be able to access the 10-gig network infrastructure, it will drive competition and support greater consumer choice by allowing internet service providers to sell their products directly to homeowners and businesses.

I have to admit, but not really embarrassed to say, that I needed to look up where Beaumont, Alberta is on the map.

Beaumont is located just south of the Edmonton city limits and just east of Edmonton Airport, which means downtown Beaumont is much closer to Edmonton airport than Edmonton. As an aside, having been to Edmonton quite a number of times, I sometimes joke that it feels like Edmonton airport was built about as far away from Edmonton as they could and still call it Edmonton’s airport. But, I digress.

There are about 18,000 people who live in the 10.5 square kilometre (4.0 sq. mi.) community. Three quarters of the community are homeowners; about half of those who responded to a community census said they worked in Edmonton.

But, let’s get back to that fibre-optic press release.

Beaumont wasn’t saying that it has decided to build this network, just that it is negotiating for one. That is kind of unusual on its own. This wasn’t a disclosure for the purpose of notifying the investment community. Jacobs (NYSE: J) is a US$13B engineering firm; the announcement wasn’t considered material enough for them to issue a news release to the markets.

So what purpose was served by the community issuing a press release?

Beaumont is served by two major facilities based internet service providers: Shaw and TELUS. It appears that Shaw already offers gigabit internet services to the addresses I checked. TELUS offers 75/15 Mbps service. So, this is not really an under-served community. At 1,800 residents per square kilometre, Beaumont isn’t part of rural Alberta.

Looking at the Public-Private Partnership, Beaumont is saying that its contribution is “providing access to public rights-of-way”. But in actual fact, since telecommunications is a federal undertaking, those rights of way should be equally available to any carrier.

Of course, that assumes any other carrier wants to invest further in Beaumont. Beaumont’s release says its plan for an ‘open-access’ network will ‘drive competition’, but in my view, it actually has the potential to reduce facilities competition by creating a disincentive for commercial carriers to continue to invest.

Rob McCann, founder of Clearcable Networks and President of the Hamilton Technology Centre, wrote a relevant commentary last week in Cartt.ca, entitled “Why open access networks may be a thing of the past”. He observed “The open access model, however, divides responsibility for the different layers of service, from the physical network to the services that run on top. Operating a successful open access network thus demands that all the organizations involved in service delivery carefully consider governance, interaction, and service level assurance.”

For many major service providers, it just becomes too complicated to deliver the kinds of service levels required by their customers.

It isn’t clear to me why Smart City Capital would fund a new city-wide fibre build when the community is already served by two major brands with services exceeding the needs of virtually every household and business. I don’t see any rationale for funding to be provided to Beaumont by provincial or federal agencies when so many Canadians are lacking access to broadband services at even 1% of the speeds Shaw offers.

In response to my inquiry, a senior communications strategist for Beaumont said one of the motivations for its project is that “universal fiber will also be needed to connect 5G wireless cell sites.”

Seriously.

I have written before that “Community networks are hard to get right, and very costly when done wrong.”

At the end of the day, if Beaumont’s press release chases away or delays investment by the existing service providers, consumers will be disadvantaged.

When asked why announce now, a Beaumont spokesperson told me: “We recently signed a Letter of Intent and we want to provide an opportunity to inform residents and give them opportunity for input before a contract is finalized.”

Hopefully, residents will provide that input.

With nearly 40 years of experience in the business, I’m still left with the question: “What problem is Beaumont trying to solve?”

The COVID wild card

Final comments for the CRTC’s Review of Wireless Services consultation were submitted last Wednesday evening and the file is now in the hands of the Commission for determinations on whether to mandate MVNOs as well as a host of other issues.

Going into the hearing, the CRTC’s Notice of Consultation set out a preliminary view [at ¶39]:

that it would be appropriate to mandate that the national wireless carriers provide wholesale MVNO access as an outcome of this proceeding. The Commission considers that, on balance, it is likely that the benefits that a well-developed MVNO market would deliver to Canadians are now more likely to outweigh any negative impacts that a policy of mandated wholesale MVNO access might have on wireless carriers’ network investments, particularly given the extensive investments that have been made in recent years. Further, properly structured rates, terms, and conditions should further mitigate potential negative impacts on future investments.

However, 2 months ago, the CRTC re-opened the evidentiary record, asking parties to comment on a new interrogatory:

Does the ongoing situation with respect to the Covid-19 pandemic change the views you have previously put forward on any of the issues being examined in this proceeding? Explain why or why not with supporting rationale and evidence, as necessary.

What significance should we place on the Commission’s May 15 letter? To what extent, does the letter reflect an understanding at the Commission of the significant change in circumstances, that could change its preliminary view on the potential impacts on network investment? Or conversely, was the Commission papering the record, preparing a preemptive defense against a future appeal on the basis that it didn’t consider the change in circumstances?

The importance of maintaining incentives for investment figures prominently in the final comments submitted last week.

The Competition Bureau’s comments open with “This proceeding is more important than ever for consumers, businesses and the Canadian economy. The COVID-19 pandemic reinforces the need for robust competition in the wireless sector, to drive the provision of ubiquitous, high-quality wireless networks that are accessible and affordable for all Canadians.”

TELUS’ comments open with, “COVID-19 demonstrates the fundamental importance of network connectivity.”

Bell worked its way up to the subject, using 4 introductory paragraphs before stating “It [mandated resale] would be particularly destructive now, during a period of unprecedented economic turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time when large investments of private capital are required to support rapidly expanding usage, the roll-out of 5G, and the continued extension of access to underserved rural and remote communities.”

For Rogers, the COVID-19 factor was midway through the executive summary:

It is critical that regulatory policy continue to take a long-term view. Canada will require substantial ongoing investments to improve productivity, maintain its competitiveness globally, and to realize the promise of 5G. The importance of ongoing investments in high quality, resilient broadband networks across Canada, and of extending these networks to remaining and underserved areas of Canada, have been dramatically underscored by the current COVID-19 crisis. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has heightened awareness of the critical importance of our wireless networks to Canadians and the Canadian economy. Canada’s networks have performed among the best in the world during this unprecedented time. Mandated wholesale access to mobile wireless networks will significantly undermine incentives, and the ability, to invest going forward, jeopardizing Canada’s recovery and future success.

In the second paragraph of its final comments, Shaw warns against “artificial support for resale models that would destroy the economics of competitive investment”:

As this proceeding draws to a close, the world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has illuminated the power and importance of robust, resilient and competitive telecommunications networks. These networks, and the investment capital that sustains and nourishes them for the future, cannot be taken for granted. New competitors like Shaw have invested many billions of dollars in spectrum and new wireless infrastructure that form our footing in the fight for sustainable competition. We are not done.

Videotron’s introduction to its executive summary is entitled “Introduction – les leçons de la crise COVID-19”, concluding the introduction with “Compte tenu de ce qui précède, il nous apparaît évident qu’il est dans l’intérêt national de maintenir une approche de réglementation privilégiant la concurrence axée sur les investissements.”

In its comments, CWTA was more reserved, deciding to close its executive summary with the COVID card: “As Canada emerges from the health and financial crisis caused by COVID-19, the wireless industry will play an important role in Canada’s economic recovery. The demand for high-quality, reliable wireless services will continue to grow.”

Even the potential new entrants put COVID front and centre. In the second paragraph of Cogeco’s submission, we read “This need [investments in all types of telecommunication infrastructure] is now even greater, as society has shifted many location-based activities (work, shopping, cultural activities, etc.) online in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic.”

DOT Mobile’s first paragraph opens “The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made acute the needs of the underserved Canadians who must rely on communication services more than ever. The underserved are now faced with severe impacts from the pandemic, such as a decrease or complete loss of income, reduction of job opportunities or mental health issues caused by COVID-19 induced stress, social distancing and solitude.”

Teksavvy said “Covid19 has brought an additional urgency to the completion of these proceedings. It has revealed how people rely on general network connectivity, as well as exposing gaps in that connectivity caused by the incumbents’ profit-seeking behaviour.” I’m not sure I understand the implicit pejorative nature of “profit-seeking behaviour”, but I am equally unclear how Teksavvy believes reductions in revenues and profits will help close those connectivity gaps.

The Coalition for Cheaper Wireless Services said in its opening paragraph “The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased Canadians’ individual
technological dependency.”

This is just a small sampling excerpted from the final comments submitted Wednesday night.

It is clear that COVID-19 is the wild card in the CRTC deliberations. What is less clear is whether the CRTC has been swayed from its preliminary view favouring mandated MVNO, despite explicitly recognizing the “negative impacts that a policy of mandated wholesale MVNO access might have on wireless carriers’ network investments.”

We’ll share more in the coming days.