Canada’s future depends on connectivity

“Canada’s future depends on connectivity.” Those were the opening words in the statement issued by Innovation, Science and Industry Minister Navdeep Bains in discussing Cabinet’s decision not to formally intervene in last summer’s wholesale internet Order by the CRTC. While declining to take action, Cabinet sent a clear message that it expects significant changes to those rates in the pending outcome of the Commission’s own review of the Order.

The CRTC’s Order was issued August 15, 2019. Under Section 12(1) the Telecom Act, subsequent to a ‘petition’, “within one year after a decision by the Commission”, Cabinet (the Governor in Council) could “vary or rescind the decision or refer it back to the Commission”.

Exactly one year later, Cabinet decided not to take any of those actions, at this time.

The statement from Minister Bains explicitly acknowledges that the original CRTC Order got the rates wrong and says that the Commission did not strike the appropriate balance between the competing objectives of the Telecom Act, failing to apply sufficient weight to Section 7(b): “to render reliable and affordable telecommunications services of high quality accessible to Canadians in both urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada”. Cabinet recognized that wholesale rates got set so low that carriers were unable to continue expanding their networks into unserved and under-served regions.

On the basis of its review, the Governor in Council considers that the rates do not, in all instances, appropriately balance the policy objectives of the wholesale services framework and is concerned that these rates may undermine investment in high-quality networks, particularly in rural and remote areas. Retroactive payments to affected wholesale clients are appropriate in principle and can foster cooperation in regulatory proceedings. However, these payments, which reflect the rates, must be balanced so as not to stifle network investments. Incentives for ongoing investment, particularly to foster enhanced connectivity for those who are unserved or underserved, are a critical objective of the overall policies governing telecommunications, including these wholesale rates. Given that the CRTC is already reviewing its decision, it is unnecessary to refer the decision back to the CRTC for reconsideration at this time.

With such strong views about the CRTC’s Order, some may ask why Cabinet didn’t exercise its power to formally “refer it back to the Commission.”

The better question is “Why would it bother referring it back to the CRTC?” All that would do is cause a delay.

The CRTC already has its own review of the Decision underway. That process began last November and submissions have already been received. Had Cabinet chosen to exercise its option to “refer it back to the Commission”, the resultant process might have to start over.

By setting forth a statement outlining its expectations for the Commission’s own review process, Cabinet is expediting the process that will ultimately release wholesale rates that balance the competing objectives. Although it declined to act, Cabinet is sending a signal to the Commission for what could trigger a subsequent review of the CRTC’s reconsideration proceeding.

[The CRTC’s Order was also the subject of a judicial process that was heard by the Federal Court of Appeal this past June. The Court imposed a stay of the Order, saying “the implementation of the CRTC Order that could result in a permanent market distortion which would be difficult to remedy posteriori.”]

A little over a week ago, I wrote that there are “other regulatory or policy levers that don’t require direct subsidies to improve the business cases for rural expansion”. In today’s release, we see Cabinet pulling a powerful policy lever that will significantly improve the business case for network investment including rural expansion.

Sometimes, the best decision is choosing not to make a decision at all.

A few months ago, in “A key to recovery? Communications leadership”, I wrote “Set clear objectives; Align activities with the achievement of those objectives; Stop doing things that are contrary to the objectives.”

Canada’s future depends on connectivity.

That is a strong statement, around which we can build objectives.

Last month, in “The COVID wild card”, I wrote about the supplementary comments filed in the CRTC’s mobile services review. “The importance of maintaining incentives for investment figures prominently in the final comments submitted last week.” On the subject of mandated resale of mobile services, I noted that Bell wrote “It would be particularly destructive now, during a period of unprecedented economic turmoil brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and at a time when large investments of private capital are required to support rapidly expanding usage, the roll-out of 5G, and the continued extension of access to underserved rural and remote communities.”

With the ability to declare victory on falling prices for mobile services, the government is rightly turning its focus on maintaining incentives for investment in advanced facilities and expansion in unserved and under-served markets. What implications can we extract from today’s Cabinet release that may guide the outcome of the CRTC’s review of mobile services?

After all, Canada’s future depends on connectivity.

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