Jean-Pierre Blais says goals include ensuring Canadians have access to quality and innovative communications services at affordable prices

New CRTC chair tips hand on priorities

Reading tea leaves is an art. So, too, is reading between the lines of statements from government departments and agencies.

The latest exercise came Thursday when the new head of the country’s telecommunications regulating agency, Jean-Pierre Blais, released his first three-year workplan for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications, (CRTC).

The commission also grouped its responsibilities into three so-called pillars:

–“Connect,” which covers wired and wireless broadband networks;

–“Protect,” which covers CRTC responsibilities such as the upcoming spam reporting centre and punishing those who make unsolicited advertising phone calls; and

–“Create,” which covers the commission’s oversight over Canadian content in broadcasting.

This may be an attempt by the commission to make it clearer to the public what its role is.

The industry is waiting to see where Blais, a former CRTC official, will lead the commission. In 2006 the Harper government directed the regulator to rely on market forces “the maximum extent feasible” to achieve its policy objectives.

But it rudely slapped the commission last year for its usage-based billing decision.

To Mark Goldberg, a Thornhill, Ont., based consultant to carriers and organizations, the  new pillars reflects some of the recent trends he’s seen in recent commission news releases.

“This seems to have a consumer focus, as opposed to a balance of interests of consumer, industry and government policy,” he said, referring to the wording of the three pillars.

One says the CRTC aims to ensure Canadians can connect to “quality and innovative” communications services at affordable prices, Goldberg noted. But, he added, the goal isn’t “world-leading” services [although  Blais said in a press release announcing the workplan the goal is to foster  a "world-class communications system"].

Nor does it suggest the commission will try to ensure there are incentives for carriers to invest in telecom infrastructure.

Reading between the lines, he wondered if the commission is signalling that it will become a consumer watchdog and leave telecom and broadcast policy to the government.

In the telecommunications area, many of the policy reviews planned for the next three years have already been announced – for example, a look into the terms of consumer wireless contracts and whether independent Internet service providers can get more confidential information from major carriers.

Decisions here may not cause much upheaval in the industry.

But the regulator also plans to conduct a review of its essential services policy – as promised in a 2008 decision — that might have important consequences.

The regulator decided then that a number of services provided by incumbent telecom carriers and sold at regulated wholesale rates to competitors are no longer essential. That means carriers can set the rates to competitors.

An important part of that ruling was that Ethernet services remain essential. MTS Allstream tried and failed to have the Harper government overturn the decision.

Also part of the three-year plan is to first look into a related issue, how the commission sets the prices carriers can charge competitors who buy wholesale services from them.

The commission doesn’t set retail prices.

Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group, who has been critical of the CRTC’s Ethernet decision, welcomed these two policy reviews. But, he said, instead of scheduling them for 2013-2014 (wholesale access) and 2014-2015 (essential services) the commission should move up the timetable.

The three-year plan deals with reports and consultations on issues the CRTC generates itself and are separate from complaints that generate hearings, broadcast licences up for regular reviews and other mandated work.

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