Mark Goldberg

50% chance of a warmer than average winter

A while ago, I did some work with a weather agency. The project leader, we’ll refer to him as Tony since that was his name, told me that he received a call from a news station that wanted to know what the long range forecast was for the upcoming winter. Tony told the reporter, without consulting any computer models and with a completely straight face, “we’re forecasting that there is a 50% chance of a warmer than average winter.” The station led with that breaking news.

The reporter didn’t understand that there was also a 50% chance of a colder than average winter ahead. Tony got a chuckle out of that story.

This story came to mind as I read the CRTC’s Decision on staying the requirement for facilities based telecom companies to file new tariffs as part of the implementation of last year’s aggregated wholesale high-speed access services ruling (2019-288).

It seems to me to be an impossible task for a regulator, or anyone, to set the rates exactly right. Set too high, competitive service providers won’t be able to compete; set too low and facilities-based providers are effectively subsidizing their competition and lose the incentives to invest in new technology and expanding territory.

What are the defining characteristics of an ideal wholesale rate? For example, at one time, the regulator sought rates to be set at a level that smaller ISPs could find an opportunity to serve their customers, while maintaining an incentive to invest in facilities as they grow in a given area. Is this still part of the thinking when setting rates?

While the rates can never be ‘bang on’, since cost elements change over time and with 100% certainty will not precisely match the very best forecasts, there must be a range that can prove to be acceptable to both parties, the buyer and the seller.

It’s a real challenge in a regulated market for the adjudicator to find that middle ground. From the response to the rates decision of August 2019, it appears clear that the CRTC’s rate cuts coupled with retroactive rebates went too far.

Can a regulator reasonably replace the results of direct negotiations? Along these lines, I found it interesting to read in the Stay Decision of the competitive factors at play between some of the facilities-based providers. At what point should the regulator determine the wholesale marketplace is sufficiently competitive to allow market forces to take over in setting rates?

In the meantime, I’m prepared, with complete confidence, to forecast a 50% chance that the coming winter will be warmer than average. And, there is a 100% chance that however the CRTC rules in its review of the August 2019 rates, one side or the other (or maybe both) won’t be happy.

1 comment to 50% chance of a warmer than average winter

  • Michael Connolly

    Your comment that one side or the other or maybe both won’t be happy reminded me of an anecdote. A former colleague of mine at Industry Canada (who shall remain nameless) used to say that you know you have the policy right when the screaming on either side of the issue is of equal volume. This is a distinction between political regulation and expert, competent arm’s-length regulation. Politicians seek stability, order and popularity. A competent regulator on the other hand should strive to get the decision right to the best of its ability even if unpopular – including deciding that it should abstain from regulation and let market forces prevail when appropriate.