Mark Goldberg

The Canadian Telecom Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

A role for provinces in digital policy

The separation of powers between provinces and the federal government has been a leading news story in Canada, triggering a decision by Kinder Morgan to suspend funding of the Trans Mountain Expansion project pending certainty of the company’s ability to complete the $7.4B pipeline.

I thought it might be worthwhile taking a look at the role of federal-provincial relations for digital services.

In 1989, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in AGT v. Canada (CRTC) that Canada’s major provincial telephone companies were federal undertakings and in 1994, in Téléphone Guèvremont v. Québec (Régie des télécommunications), the Court extended that to jurisdictional determination to the smaller independent companies as well.

Ever since, Canada has avoided many of the fractured regulatory challenges faced by service providers south of the border, dealing with state utility commissions for intra-state services and the Federal Communications Commission for federal services.

That doesn’t mean that provinces are excluded from Canadian communications policy and regulations. Section 13 of the Telecom Act requires provincial consultation prior to the Minister issuing a policy direction or an order to “vary or rescind” a CRTC decision “or refer it back to the Commission for reconsideration”.

Disputes still arise, as we have seen recently when the Government of Quebec sought to have internet service providers block access to certain gambling websites. The CRTC has asserted that service providers can only block traffic if the Commission has given prior authorization, not the province.

Still, there are meaningful roles for provinces to wade into digital policy. As Ontario heads into an election in less than 2 months, what kind of digital leadership might emerge as platforms are being released?

The NDP released its platform [pdf] yesterday, entitled “Change for the Better”. It reads like “More of the Same”. The 100-page document only touches on digital policy in one area, duplicating decades of federal programs by announcing a 10-year, $100M per year rural and northern broadband program. The platform mentions “health” 161 times without ever discussing e-health, distance or remote monitoring, electronic health records or privacy. There is no mention of digital literacy or media literacy. Nothing about use of computers or networking or programming in schools. No digital skills training. No programs to put computers or connectivity into low income households, especially households with school aged kids.

It is disappointing that the platform is silent on other important areas that should be ripe for digital innovation – health, education, social safety net, skills development – all areas that should have been considered by a provincial party, especially a provincial New Democratic Party. The words “digital” and “computer” don’t appear at all in the platform.

When TELUS [Internet for Good] and Rogers [Connected for Success] launched programs to offer computers and connectivity for low-income households, one of the challenges was identifying the eligible households. Rogers ended up working with local community housing agencies; TELUS is working with provincial community service ministries in Alberta and BC.

Provinces can demonstrate leadership on digital issues without wading into areas of federal jurisdiction.

Which party and which province will demonstrate it is prepared for 21st century transformation?

On Wednesday June 6, The 2018 Canadian Telecom Summit will have a panel called “Cultivating an Innovation Economy”, moderated by Namir Anani, CEO of the Information & Communications Technology Council of Canada.

The 2018 Canadian Telecom Summit takes place June 4-6 in Toronto. Register before the end of April to save $250.

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