CRTC needs to do a better job of regulating telecommunications, experts say

Nojoud Al Mallees, The Canadian Press

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at 4:22 PM EDT

The recent Rogers outage has prompted a flurry of policy recommendations from experts and elected officials, including legislation that would recognize telecommunications services as essential public services, but experts say much of the onus to act lies with the federal regulator of telecommunications.

The Rogers blackout on July 8, which left more than 12 million Canadians in a communications blackout and affected access to 911 emergency services, prompted the House of Commons industry committee to hold hearings. Rogers executives, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne and officials from the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission were among the witnesses who testified Monday.

During the hearings, the parliamentarians looked for solutions, even if more laws were needed to guarantee that the telecommunication services were regulated like public services.

“Obviously this is an essential service,” said New Democrat Rep. Brian Masse. “Why not a telecommunications bill of rights?”

The outage has led to additional scrutiny from the telecommunications industry, as well as criticism of the CRTC for its regulatory role.

Bram Abramson, a director at 32M, a regulated telecommunications adviser, said the Telecommunications Act already recognizes telecommunications services as essential and that the answer to the Rogers outage is not “shiny new laws.”

“Ultimately, I don’t think the problem is that we don’t have enough laws or that it’s not recognized as important,” Abramson said.

The CRTC is responsible for carrying out the goals outlined in the Telecommunications Act, which mandates “high-quality, reliable and affordable telecommunications services accessible to Canadians in urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada.”

“The problem is that the current regulatory framework put in place to respond to those general principles was not up to the mark,” Abramson said.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said public services have been discussed in the context of services that are inadequate in some communities. In the context of the Rogers blackout, Geist said he took ideas raised by parliamentarians to reflect “palpable frustration” and a search for solutions.

“The idea of ​​labeling certain services as essential services or as public services responds to the notion of a more aggressive approach from a regulatory perspective,” he said.

During the hearings, Conservative MP Tracy Gray asked CRTC chief Ian Scott if the regulator was living up to its mandate.

Scott said yes, it was.

The CRTC faced criticism from experts who testified about the disruption’s effect on access to emergency services.

Ben Klass, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, told the committee that the regulator has some responsibility to shoulder.

“(The CRTC’s) processes need to be improved and perhaps its relatively permissive approach to regulating critical services should be rethought,” Klass said.

The CRTC says it is reviewing a submission from Rogers that addresses the causes of the outage and will determine next steps.

Experts who testified at the hearings presented a number of suggested policy changes and called for the CRTC to conduct a full public investigation that extends beyond its current investigation.

In his testimony, Champagne said he expects the CRTC to conduct a full investigation of the outage and referred to new policy directives his office issued to the CRTC in May aimed at improving competition in the telecommunications industry.

Geist said that while he did not call for a public utility model in his recommendations, there are clear steps that can be taken from a regulatory standpoint to address these concerns.

It advocates for compensation models for consumers, greater transparency of telecommunications companies, better communication processes during interruptions and the application of sanctions.

Geist said the federal government has failed to provide adequate oversight of the regulator, noting that testimonies from executives at Rogers, Champagne and CRTC officials sounded similar.

“Everyone tried to paint the Rogers blackout as something one-off that needs to be addressed, rather than being open to examining the more systemic issues that have plagued the industry.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 27, 2022.

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