Cross subsidies in a competitive marketplace

The issue of communications industry cross subsidies has come to the fore with the Government’s introduction of Bill C-10, “An Act to amend the Broadcasting Act and to make consequential amendments to other Acts”, legislation that authorizes Canada’s communications regulator, the CRTC, to impose a wide range of regulations and fees on internet content.

Canada has come a long way from its original approach to internet content, as set out in May 1999. At the time, in “Regulation of the Internet in Canada”, I wrote “The CRTC has become one of the world’s first regulators to clearly enunciate a “hands off” policy toward the Internet – allowing market forces to drive development of content and increase levels of accessibility for users.”

A few years ago, I wrote “Regulating the internet: what happened?”, observing “The past 5 years have seen Canada apply an increasingly heavy regulatory hand. A search for “Regulating internet” on my blog turns up a number of posts expressing concern about government intervention.” Citing an earlier post, I noted: “Will Canadians see greener Internet pastures in the USA?”, observing Orwellian euphemisms of “openness” and “choice” to characterize greater government control. Canada’s current approach to internet regulation contrasts diametrically with our neighbours to the south.”

Much of the focus on Bill C-10 has been on the proposal to impose fees on global internet technology companies in order to contribute to Canadian content development.

In some ways, this is reminiscent of a discussion in “The future of communications cross-subsidies” from 6 years ago. The government has long used the communications sector as an alternate tax and wealth redistribution system, with fees from urban phone subscribers subsidizing rural, business subsidizing residential, broadcasting subsidizing content production. In a monopoly era, there was little harm and great political benefit. Social objectives could be attained without impact on the government budget. Politicians could take credit for achieving goals with others footing the bill. Inflated communications bills could be blamed on the industry.

But with competition, especially internet-based competition, an increasing amount of revenue leaks out of the cross-subsidy system. For a given level of subsidy, an ever increasing percentage of revenues was required for those portions that remained in the system, accentuating the cost advantages for industry participants operating outside of the “system”.

In such circumstances, it seems to me there are two ways to level the playing field: try to capture more players inside the cross-subsidy system; or, move responsibility for funding government objectives to the general tax base. In choosing the former, Bill C-10 continues along the path of increasing regulation of the internet.

The United States has followed a different path. As Canada’s neighbours to the south prepare to transition to a new administration, it is again worth examining what FCC Chair Ajit Pai told The 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit:

In short, America’s approach to broadband policy will be practical, not ideological. We’ll embrace what works, and dispense with what doesn’t. That means removing barriers to innovation and investment, instead of creating new ones. That means taking targeted action to address real problems in the marketplace, instead of imposing broad preemptive regulations. And that means respecting principles of economics, physics and law, and acting with humility as we regulate one of the most dynamic marketplaces history has ever known. This vision will unleash the massive investments that the digital world demands.

Should Canada approach internet regulation with a greater sense of humility?

Do such policies sufficiently consider whether they are imposing or relaxing barriers to innovation and investment?

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