A more evidenced based approach is warranted

After watching the Federal Government’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology (INDU) May 7 meeting, Greg O’Brien wrote a commentary entitled “Federal committee nothing but bluster”.

“There’s a waste of two hours,” he wrote. “Not just my own time. Everyone’s.” Later on, Greg writes “You’d think they would want to get to the point, let witnesses speak, maximize their time with a number of good questions. Nope. Maximum windbaggery is what I saw”.

I’m certain we both had higher hopes for last Thursday’s (May 14) meeting, when representatives from Rogers, TELUS, Cogeco and Xplornet were witnesses. I came away shaking my head.

While some productive discussion emerged, too much time was spent by Parliamentarians apparently building transcript materials to show off to constituents and future voters. As stated by Chair Sherry Romanado (MP – Longueuil—Charles-LeMoyne) at the beginning of the video record on “ParlVu”, the meetings are being held “for the purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” Starting on April 23, there have been 7 such video conference meetings so far.

The meetings have evolved to become a forum for issues related to accelerating the deployment of broadband access in rural and remote parts of Canada. This has given rise to Michelle Rempel Garner’s May 7 release of the ‘not ready for prime time’ Conservative caucus “Connect Canada” plan, and NDP MP Brian Masse’s release of the “NDP Plan for High Speed Broadband Internet for all Canadians” just prior to the May 14 Committee meeting.

The opposition parties created their plans prior to hearing from witnesses, many of which are in the business of building and operating networks. That is disappointing enough. But Canadians should watch the performance of their parliamentarians in committee. How many would approve of a methodology that sees plans developed and conclusions drawn well in advance of gathering evidence?

For example, the opening remarks by Rogers for Business President Dean Prevost included this testimony that could have provided guidance for the plans [17:30:25]: “Unfortunately, where we do not have high capacity, high speed wireline networks, we are not able to provide unlimited wireless data for internet access at home at this time. Put simply, wireline networks have 50-200 times the capacity per consumer as rural wireless mobile networks. Removing datacaps would simply overwhelm the mobile wireless network, impairing service for everyone in that area, including the first responders and 9-1-1 services that rely on it.”

During last Thursday’s meeting, I was particularly disturbed by a couple exchanges between Calgary-Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner (‘MRG’) and TELUS Chief Customer Officer Tony Geheran (‘TG’).

We witnessed this exchange at 6:31 pm:

MRG: “Mr. Geheran, I think I am saying your name right. You made a comment tonight. You said ‘if you have a policy that fundamentally undermines an investment strategy, you have to change policy’ and I think I agree with that. So I’d start with saying, do you think that structurally separating the builders of network from Internet Service Providers is a way to solve the policy tension that I just described?”

TG: “No, I don’t. I haven’t seen that work anywhere globally, to sustainable effect.”

MRG: “It’s in the UK, right?”

TG: “Yeah.”

MRG: “It’s like the primary model in the UK.”

TG: “But if you look at the UK, they are wholesale moaning about the quality of their infrastructure, their lack of fibre coverage. across what is a very small geography. I know. I originated from there. And quite frankly, the Canadian networks are far superior in coverage and quality and performance through COVID has demonstrated that.”

MRG: “Well, that’s certainly not what we’re hearing in our offices from end users and that’s not the reality that we’re hearing in testimony tonight from you.”

I’m not sure the Honourable Member actually heard contradicting testimony that night. Perhaps she was confusing meetings.

So, I went off to find some independent sources to figure out what is actually going on in the UK. If the Committee members want independent corroborating evidence for Mr. Geheran’s perspective, they too can check with the independent regulators in Canada (the CRTC) and the UK (Ofcom). It didn’t take much effort to find information on the respective regulators’ websites.

Just a few weeks ago, in its April 24 Notice of Consultation reviewing its approach for rates for wholesale telecom services, the CRTC wrote “Ofcom has identified the lack of incentives to invest in new broadband networks, including full-fibre networks, as one of the key challenges facing the U.K. telecommunications industry.” Just 3 weeks ago, Canada’s regulator stated that the one of the key challenges facing the UK regulator was its lack of incentives to invest, just as Mr. Geheran had told Ms. Rempel Garner.

For verification of quality differences, there is plenty of data in the most recent annual reports from both regulators. For example, Ofcom is showing that broadband speeds in the UK increased 18% between 2017 and 2018 to reach 54.2 Mbps. According to the CRTC, average speeds in Canada reached 126.0 Mbps by the end of 2018, an 89% increase over 2017.

Or, the members of the committee could take a look at the Insights section from Ookla speed test results, which show Canada’s April 2020 wireline average at 118.11 Mbps for downloads and upload average at 51.80 Mbps. In the same period, wireline users in the UK were getting roughly half the download speed at 67.23 Mbps and about a third of the upload speed (18.28 Mbps).

When the Hon. Member from Calgary Nosehill said “that’s certainly not what we’re hearing in our offices from end users and that’s not the reality that we’re hearing in testimony,” the independent evidence supports ‘the reality’ portrayed by Mr. Geheran.

If they are hearing otherwise, the committee might want to take more time listening to different witnesses. Recall the opening of the meeting, where we hear that this inquiry was “for the purpose of receiving evidence”.

How would you interpret “receiving evidence”? Listening? Probing? Researching? Learning?

Instead, what we, the Canadian voters, have witnessed so far appeared to be parliamentary puffery.

A more evidenced-based approach is warranted.

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