Mark Goldberg


Public utility broadband networks

One of the jobs I had in the early days of my corporate career was in a Budget and Results organization. This was before the days of personal computers on every desk, before the days of smart phones or personal mobile phones. We had armies of clerical staff tabulating numbers on adding machines and new paper tape calculators, typing up monthly reports and responding to executive inquiries.

Many of those inquiries would be generated on Friday afternoons, around 12:30 with a response due by 8:00 am on Monday. Often, the answer would then be tracked for months, creating yet another tab in the monthly results package. I learned early on that the source of many of these Friday inquiries was an innocent lunchtime comment by a Vice President, who would join his AVPs each Friday at the Ridout for a weekly ‘leadership meeting’ fueled by 25 cent glasses of Labatts Blue on tap. As an aside, in those days, one would order drinks at the Ridout by the table, and it didn’t really matter what was in the glass: beer; soft drinks; or, juice. The tavern was directly across the river from the original Labatts brewery. Blue was assumed to be the order when you asked for a ‘table’.

So, Bert would scratch his head, say something like “I wonder… you know, I just sometimes wonder… ” and he would blurt out some stream of consciousness thought, that might have otherwise been kept to himself, had he not just finished his second glass of inspiration. My AVP would chime in saying “that is a really good thought, Bert. I think I saw a report on that recently.” He would then find an excuse to slip away from the table, work his way to the payphone by the men’s room and call us in order to generate a report to have on Bert’s desk first thing Monday morning. Most of the time, Bert really didn’t care – he was just making conversation.

We learned early on that some of these ideas didn’t merit disruption of everyone’s weekend plans. Once we advised the AVP of the cost of responding to his Friday lunch phone calls, he was no longer as eager to leverage each Friday lunch comment as an opportunity to impress the boss.

Why did I think of this story?

An article by The Logic in the National Post brought this anecdote to mind: “Canada Infrastructure Bank explored launching public utility to compete with Rogers, Bell & Telus”. The Post says “The report argues that a public utility would be more efficient for building rural infrastructure than paying private companies to do so.”

That summary should have been the indication that this was an idea that should be buried. Otherwise, the line on the chart that said “The most basic policy question is should telecommunications infrastructure be a regulated public utility based on open access infrastructure.”

That isn’t a question anymore. The question of treating telecommunications infrastructure as a regulated public utility has been answered numerous times, examined by independent regulators around the world (including Canada’s) and various expert bodies, such as the 2006 report of the Telecom Policy Review Panel [pdf, 1.6 MB]. I have written about this numerous times, such as in “Should Canada create a telco crown?” from August, 2013, and “Governments can’t run networks” from July, 2010.

As I wrote last week, the land down under has shown what can go wrong when governments take on the job of building a public utility broadband network: “Learning from Australia”.

Canada Infrastructure Bank may have explored launching a public utility network, but hopefully, it gave the idea the attention it deserved, before laughing it off and moving on to consider whose turn it was to order the next table full of draft.

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