As Canada heads into a snap election, I thought I would take a look at what I would want to see in a party platform. It was just 23 months ago that I wrote “A telecom platform”, in which I observed “many political parties are trying to curry favour among the electorate by bashing telecom service providers. Such positioning may be good politics, but not necessarily good policy.”
The NDP released its “Ready for Better” suite of commitments in advance of the election call. It may be replaced by an actual platform in the coming days. I found “Ready for Better” to be somewhat outdated and frankly disappointing, as though the ideas were recycled from earlier campaigns.
For example, the NDP says it will introduce a Telecom Consumers’ Bill of Rights. Should I suppose this means something different from combining the Wireless Code, the Internet Code, the Television Service Provider Code and combining them under a single complaint-handling agency? Maybe we could call it the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services?
Many of the consumer focused commitments from the NDP have already been addressed in those codes. One of its commitments may sound consumer friendly if you say it fast enough, but on reflection doesn’t really help. For example, the party says it will abolish data caps for broadband internet.
Why remove consumer choice? I certainly understand the desire to have unlimited data as an option – I have that on my broadband connection. But not everyone necessarily wants that. Whatever the price is for an unlimited service, wouldn’t you expect the cost – and therefore the price – for a capacity constrained service to be lower? Why would you limit such choices?
What about “Expanding cell coverage and delivering reliable, affordable broadband internet to every community in Canada is vital to the economic future of rural Canada and remote communities. But it has been ignored by successive governments for far too long.” This simply isn’t true. Look at the billions of dollars that has been spent in the past two years by the federal government accelerating rural broadband investment under the UBF program and in a variety of provincial partnerships such as with quebec and Ontario. Further, the response from the federal government review of wholesale internet rates was premised on the view that “Canada’s future depends on connectivity”.
I’m disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised, to see such pandering in the NDP commitment document.
The Conservatives released their platform, “Canada’s Recovery Plan” [pdf, 3.9MB], a 164 page glossy magazine that included a half page on telecom policy promises. The Conservatives promise to allow “foreign telecommunications companies to provide services to Canadian customers”, which is interesting (and perhaps a little awkward) since foreign ownership in telecom was relaxed back in 2012 under (Conservative) Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The only restrictions are that foreign companies are currently prohibited from buying Bell, Rogers or TELUS.
The Conservatives also promise to accelerate broadband investment to connect all of Canada to high speed internet by 2025. Current government programs plan to have 98% by 2026 and cover the remaining by 2030. We don’t see details on how the Conservatives plan to crank up the dial, but they do say they will “Promote investment in communications facilities by local and regional communities.” I have written extensively on the poor track record of municipal broadband and most recently, we have seen O-Net, once the poster child for municipal advocates, put into receivership.
Community networks are hard, and as Conservatives know, governments have a really lousy track record running businesses. Where a business case is lacking for private sector investment, the far better model is to partner with the private sector for cost sharing. That reduces the burden on taxpayers, and leverages private sector funding and expertise.
I wish there could be a political party that possesses, and is willing to demonstrate, a deeper understanding of the economics of broadband expansion in Canada; a party that understands the difference between EBITDA margin and profit, and understands the relationship between capital intensity and EBITDA.
Am I asking too much?
Over the past parliamentary session, there has been much disappointment for followers of telecom issues at the Industry Committee. As I described in “A more evidenced based approach is warranted”, policy statements on telecom were released by each of the Conservative and NDP caucuses in advance of hearing from witnesses. So much for evidence-based policy making.
We should demand better from our elected representatives.
Just 23 months ago, I wrote “It is easy to call for measures that lower prices. It is more responsible to set out a policy platform that understands the balance between competition, affordability, consumer interests, investment and innovation.”
As we move into this pandemic election, I plan to look at how the various party platforms aim to ensure that all Canadians, those in urban and rural areas, will have access to affordable, high quality, innovative services. How will they balance the tensions between the various interests?
Seriously, am I asking too much?