Mark Goldberg


www.mhgoldberg.com





The Canadian Telecom Summit

Fox Group Dispatch

Will Canadians see greener Internet pastures in the USA?

This commentary appears on CARTT.ca

It is almost a defining characteristic for Canadians to distinguish ourselves from our neighbors to the south. The untrained ear may think we speak English somewhat similarly, but Canadians emphatically define ourselves as “not American” while we roll-up-the-rim-to-win.

That doesn’t keep us from wishing we had American prices for gasoline, milk, eggs, airfares, clothing and alcohol. It is springtime, and it is natural for us to look wistfully at greener grass growing on the other side of the border. We can add the USA’s unlimited mobile data plans to the list, prompted by one of the first acts by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Ajit Pai of dropping an investigation into zero rating practices by US carriers. The removal of that regulation resulted in every major carrier launching an offering of unlimited data plans.

Now, Chairman Pai has teed up the restoration of the free and open internet as he recently announced his plan to restore the light touch regulatory approach that helped make the Internet great.  Not a moment too soon. New research indicates that the misguided Title II regulation in the United States and the general pro-regulatory black cloud that has hung over the FCC in recent years, has deterred some $30-40 billion of internet investment annually in the US.

Canada’s current regulatory environment is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s FCC in which the Orwellian euphemisms of “openness” and “choice” characterized greater government control. Currently, there is an official telecom policy direction requiring the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to “rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible” and “when relying on regulation, use measures that are efficient and proportionate to their purpose and that interfere with the operation of competitive market forces to the minimum extent necessary.”  Still, a growing number of CRTC regulations (including price controls on internet access and regulating the internet) have served to reduce differentiation between service providers, such as with mobile video services, such as NFL Mobile and Bell Mobility.

The CRTC claims that its increasingly heavy hand “relies on market forces to the maximum extent feasible, seeks to remove barriers to entry, and is a measure that is efficient and proportionate to its purpose.” But it is unclear that the CRTC’s policy would survive an independent audit of compliance to certify whether its direction is consistent with market-based policy. I have written before about the cost of regulation in Canada [here and here] and have often asked, how will we measure success? We don’t know. The CRTC offers no measurement.

As one long-time observer of the Canadian regulatory scene recently asked, should we expect capital to migrate to Canada because of our improved rules? If we look at the rate of startups in Canada versus the rate in the US, should we expect that rate improve in Canada relative to US? I think not. Investment is pouring into the US as a result of a return to its pro-competition and pro-consumer approach. In spite of the net neutrality policies meant to improve innovation in Canada, Canadian entrepreneurs continue to flock the US.

In general, the world is siding with the US, not Canada, on this issue. Courts in Netherlands, Sweden, and Slovenia have struck down heavy handed net neutrality regulation and price controls that restrict zero-rating and free data policies. With any luck, the bold and much-needed moves from the FCC in the US will provide the needed example to the CRTC in Canada and help us restore internet freedom again.

Internet Freedom is certain to be among the topics discussed at The 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit on June 5-7 in Toronto.

Join in the discussion.

Have you registered yet?

In search of greener pastures

It is almost a defining characteristic for Canadians to distinguish ourselves from our neighbours to the south. The untrained ear may think we speak English somewhat similarly, but Canadians emphatically define ourselves as “not American” while we roll-up-the-rim-to-win.

That doesn’t keep us from wishing we had American-style prices for gasoline, milk, eggs, airfares, clothing and alcohol. It is springtime, and it is natural for us to look wistfully at greener grass growing on the other side of the border. And we can add to the list, unlimited mobile data plans.

So the City Council for Toronto recently passed a motion calling for the CRTC to mandate “reasonably priced unlimited data packages” as an option:

City Council direct the City Manager to convey to the Commissioner of the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission the request that major telecommunications providers across Canada be required, as part of their licensing arrangements, to provide consumers with options for reasonably priced unlimited data packages that would be part of the cellular packages they offer.

This motion was passed just a few weeks after that same city council was unable to balance its own budget without increasing taxes and adding additional user fees. Leaving aside the issue of CRTC “licensing arrangements” (and retail pricing forbearance), we might consider whether increased regulation is the best way to increase price competition.

I have frequently written about looking at greener grass elsewhere. We seem to lose sight of how many of these outcomes emerge. US unlimited data plans were not introduced due to regulation, but rather in response to signals of loosening regulation from the new FCC chair, Ajit Pai.

I have written before about the cost of regulation in Canada [such as here and here]. Is it really reasonable for Toronto’s City Council to think we can regulate our way to “reasonably priced unlimited data packages”?

A recent paper by Roslyn Layton and Joseph Kane describes how Denmark “has pursued a largely laissez-faire approach to telecom regulation.”

Denmark has been praised as a broadband utopia, but observers often fail to understand the concrete decisions that helped create Danish telecommunications policy.

There is an official telecom policy direction requiring the CRTC to “rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible” and “when relying on regulation, use measures that are efficient and proportionate to their purpose and that interfere with the operation of competitive market forces to the minimum extent necessary.”

Still, a growing number of CRTC regulations (including regulating the internet) have served to reduce differentiation between service providers, such as with mobile video services (such as NFL Mobile).

Has increased regulation limited choice and reduced incentives for pricing as a competitive response? Is there another approach that could lead to improved outcomes – greener grass?

There are a couple panels at The 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit [June 5-7, Toronto] that could examine this issue, among many, many more. The latest version of the brochure was updated today. Have you registered yet?

The grass is always greener…

NY TimesI thought that so many people were pointing at the US as a model for Canadian wireless. So many have looked south of the border, longing for Cingular-type plans and services or Apple’s iPhone to be launched here.

But the apparently, the US wireless market is primitive, and doomed to stay that way, according to an editorial in the NY Times. [Thanks, Michael for the tip.]

An open auction means that anyone can purchase spectrum and use it in a way that allows them to determine how to best get a return on their investment. Adding rules amounts to constraining the flexibility for companies risking billions of dollars on a business plan, thereby increasing risk. Increased risk translates into an increased cost of capital.

As I wrote before, there are questions that could arise with terminology as imprecise as “open access“. It seems to me that FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell‘s July 24 “Broadband Baloney” Opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal has some appropriate messages for wireless markets as well.

In the next few years, we will witness a tremendous explosion of entrepreneurial brilliance in the broadband market, if the government doesn’t micromanage. Belief in entrepreneurs and a light regulatory touch is the right broadband policy for America.

With wireless services, the grass always seems greener elsewhere.

Regulating the internet: what happened?

Eighteen years ago, I wrote that the CRTC became “one of the world’s first regulators to clearly enunciate a “hands off” policy toward the Internet.”

At that time, the Commission issued a Public Notice enumerated by codes under each of its Broadcast and Telecom sides: Broadcasting Public Notice CRTC 1999-84 and Telecom Public Notice CRTC 99-14, with a simple title: “New Media“. The decision makes for interesting reading.

It was a different time for internet content, 5 years before Facebook, 6 years before YouTube: “The Commission considers that the majority of services now available on the Internet consist predominantly of alphanumeric text, and, therefore, do not fall within the scope of the Broadcasting Act and are thus outside the Commission’s jurisdiction.”

At the time, the CRTC was confident about Canadian content development:

In the Commission’s view, there is no apparent shortage of Canadian content on the Internet today. Rather, market forces are providing a Canadian Internet presence that is also supported by a strong demand for Canadian product.

The Commission notes that a number of initiatives and funds have been developed in both the public and private sectors to help finance and support Canadian new media product.

For these reasons, the Commission concurs with the majority of participants that there is no reason for it to impose regulatory measures to stimulate the production and development of Canadian new media content.

As far as regulation of illegal and offensive content, at the time the CRTC wrote:

The Commission notes that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and their industry associations, in conjunction with government agencies and other organizations, have made efforts to develop codes of conduct to help combat the distribution of offensive material. It considers that more could be done for example, by establishing complaint lines and industry ombudsmen and developing international cooperation with law enforcement agencies. The Commission also notes that effective content filtering computer software is being developed. Such software will assist those who wish to control access to material that they feel is inappropriate.

And the Commission was as concerned about competitive ISPs having wholesale access to high speed facilities from the phone companies and cable companies:

The Commission considers that access by competitive providers of Internet services to the facilities they require to offer services is an important concern. In a 1998 decision (Telecom Decision CRTC 98-9), the Commission decided it would approve the rates and terms under which incumbent cable and telephone companies provide higher speed access to their telecommunications facilities to ISPs. The Commission will set out its general regulatory approach to rates and terms for such cable carrier higher speed access services in the near future.

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.

Three years ago, already faced withe a list of areas in which the CRTC had intervened, I wrote: “Are we restricting the evolution of creative business models and innovation through regulation?”

Earlier this year, I asked “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. As 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.

Eighteen years ago, Canada was among the first regulators to set out a light-touch approach to internet regulation. What happened?

Which path will the new Commission leadership follow?

The truth about European broadband

A recent news item appears to contradict testimony given during the CRTC’s recent #TalkBroadband hearing that stated, “all Europeans will have basic access by 2013. That’s been accomplished.”

According to the BBC, “The government will not automatically roll out broadband to those areas of the UK that don’t yet have services, it has been confirmed.”

The article quotes a spokesperson from the UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport stating “Our current plans will reach at least 95% of the UK, but we want everyone to have fast broadband so we are introducing a Universal Service Obligation to help make sure no-one is left behind.” The article says the government hopes to have its Universal Service Obligation in place by 2020.

I checked the text of the actual presentation [pdf] to ensure there wasn’t an error in the transcripts. The original CRTC hearing speaking notes stated:

Second, the Digital Agenda’s central aims are much more ambitious than those of the FCC or the CRTC:

  1. all Europeans will have basic broadband by 2013;
  2. all Europeans will have internet access above 30 Mbps by 2020;
  3. at least half of European households will subscribe to internet connections above 100 Mbps by 2020.

How can all Europeans have basic broadband already if the UK government is saying that it could be 2020 before its universal service obligation can be fulfilled? Is the grass really so much greener elsewhere?

Despite what the CRTC was told, Canada’s broadband availability (99% – 96% at speeds of 5Mbps or higher) appears to be pretty good compared to the UK, despite the vastly different population densities and geographic challenges. Just last December, the UK government launched a satellite voucher program, to provide a higher speed option for up to 300,000 households that do not have access to internet speeds faster than 2 Mbps. Satellite is part of the solution even in the UK, a country that has almost double Canada’s population residing in a land mass less than 1/40 its size.

Policy making needs to be rooted in facts and it isn’t helpful to have incomplete evidence set before the Commission.

It is fair to say that all of us would like everyone to have access to broadband. But, there is a cost to deliver such services. The most important questions remain: how much of a subsidy is required, who should be eligible for that subsidy, and how do we pay for that subsidy.

Above all, as I have written many times before, affordable broadband isn’t just a rural issue.