Mark Goldberg

So the years spin by…

Another year is about to come to a close.

Over the past couple of months, a lot of things have been going on – some good, some not so much – that have given me time to quietly reflect while doing some long distance driving. A year-end post is an appropriate time to share some of those thoughts.

This year, I realized that I have been consulting a fair bit longer than the amount of time that I had a ‘real job’ (as my dad would call it). The past 38 years in the telecommunications sector (22 years of consulting) have produced more than 2750 blog posts, although I will acknowledge that the past year continued to witness a decline in production. With just under 70 posts over the past year, I blame the amount of time I spend expounding in 280 character bursts on Twitter (although there are also a couple little boys who continue to provide welcome distractions from my desktop).

The past year brought us the national launch of Connecting Families, an initiative that has been on my year-end wish list for about 10 years, as my frequent readers know all too well. As a country, the traditional focus for government programs has been to spend money stimulating the construction of broadband facilities. A much tougher job has been to examine the factors that have limited broadband adoption by various segments of the population. There is more than just a rural/urban split in Canada’s digital divide. Connecting Families is an important step in the right direction, following the private sector leadership from TELUS and Rogers. Last week, ISED Deputy Minister John Knubley informed Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts that 3000 households had signed up for Connecting Families in the first 2 weeks of the program. That means that at least 3000 homes with kids will be able to start the next school term with a connected computer, enabling those kids to do their homework and socialize the ways most kids do. Connecting Families was a long time in the making, but it is still only a start. We should not be satisfied until every school-aged kid has access to a connected computer at home.

At this time last year, I wrote:

I can’t help but wonder what kinds of innovative pricing plans are being inhibited because Canada’s more restrictive regulations on internet access compared with the light touch approach approved last week by the FCC. Canadians have been denied the choice of plans with innovative pricing structures offering mobile TV from one service provider and another carrier offering mobile music. As predicted, the CRTC’s intervention resulted in no customers seeing lower prices while thousands ended up paying more.

Industry Minister Bains recently said “An open internet is critical to our economy and our democracy.” I agree. We need an open internet.

But, I don’t believe that an open internet has been called into question by the FCC. The real question is the level and type of government intervention required to achieve an open internet, while still preserving an environment that fosters innovation and investment.

I’m not convinced Canadian consumers benefit from the CRTC having extended net neutrality rules beyond the elements that were recommended by the Telecom Policy Review Panel. I don’t share the view of some others that the US will lose its status as the innovation leader, and I suspect US consumers will find that they benefit from the framework south of the border.

I continue to question the increasing level of government intervention that already exists for Canada’s internet services. The CRTC’s “Proceeding to establish a mandatory code for Internet services” [Internet Code] continues down the recent path by the Commission to intervene in retail markets it has previously found to be competitive. 

Starbucks recently announced it is going to block porn on its public WiFi network. McDonalds already filters content on its WiFi access network. Of course these companies should be able to decide what services are provided to customers. But from a regulatory standpoint, I wonder if there is a clear enough line that defines when a provider of internet access formally becomes an Internet Service Provider. At many hotels and airports, there are charges for internet services – in some cases for basic service; in other cases, charges apply for premium speeds. I’m not suggesting the CRTC should regulate every hotel and restaurant WiFi operator. If anything, it may show why extending retail internet regulation can lead to rules that are imbalanced, inconsistent, and potentially unnecessary.

A recent editorial in the Globe and Mail examined the section in Finance Minister Bill Morneau’s fall economic update [pdf] calling for a focus on smarter government regulations to improve the efficiency and productivity of the Canadian economy.

Preserving the environment, ensuring health and protecting consumers are all core functions of government. At issue is not the what of regulation, but the how. It’s about making sure government rules are getting the most regulatory bang while costing the economy the least actual bucks.

This is, unfortunately, just about the least sexy area of economic policy. It involves no multibillion-dollar infrastructure announcements, no ribbon cuttings and no canapés at black-tie galas. Instead, it demands lots of hard thinking and careful accounting, leading to many small rule changes adding up to potentially large benefits for the overall economy.

These kinds of mental exercises have made it so that I have enjoyed facing the work day for the past 38 years. New challenges, new technologies and new issues arise every day.

A final observation. The first decade of my career didn’t involve any regulatory work. When I first started to prepare for sworn testimony and cross examination (as we did in the olden days in front of the CRTC), I envisioned an adversarial relationship with opposing counsel. I was on the witness stand for a week and when I finished, I was surprised when one of the top lawyers from “the other side” came up to me at the break, shook my hand and that of my lawyer and said with complete sincerity that I had done a great job. I was shocked. An hour earlier, he was looking for any way to discredit my evidence, and here he was, congratulating me, sharing stories about nothing important, and wishing me a safe trip back home. From that point on, I began to understand the collegiality that existed between the parties involved in regulatory proceedings. Like Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf in the old cartoon.

One of the first blog posts I wrote (12 years ago) was “4 degrees of impersonal communications” that spoke of an indifference to social norms associated with the relative anonymity of the internet. Perhaps the polarizing nature of social media interactions has contributed to a general deterioration in the atmosphere, with venomous personal attacks on those expressing opposing viewpoints; decisions going the wrong way are met with attacks on the regulator. 

I can’t offer a solution to this phenomenon, but we should all be concerned about the quality of civil discourse among the participants, and demand better from thought leaders. 

Over the break, please take time to look at the program for The 2019 Canadian Telecom Summit (June 3-5, Toronto), which will be looking at “Converging networks: a foundation for innovation leadership.” Registrations are now open, in case you want to use up some 2018 budget and save money at the same time. I hope to see you there.

Most importantly, and I mean this with complete sincerity to all my colleagues (even those of you who disagree with me), I hope you and your families have a happy, healthy, safe and peaceful holiday season. I look forward to engaging with you in the New Year.

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