Wireless data regulation off the hearing table: CRTC

The wireless industry has convinced the federal telecom regulator not to look at whether it should start regulating mobile wireless data services at an upcoming public hearing. However the regulator hasn’t dismissed the controversial idea, either.

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On Tuesday the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) said wireless data regulation won’t be part of a two-week hearing starting Oct. 25 into the minimum services carriers ought to offer subscribers.

Instead the commission will review written submissions from the industry and public on the issue separately from the hearing, and behind closed doors.

In making its move the regulator agreed with the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents the nation’s wireless carriers, to limit its examination into wireless only to forbidding wireless carriers from committing undue discrimination in service or rates to anyone.

The decision removes the possibility that groups could publicly pressure the commission to make high speed wireless data service a basic obligation wireless carriers have to deliver to all subscribers.

However, whether the commission’s data traffic management rules – set last year for wireline services — should apply to mobile wireless data carriers will be on the agenda.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Marc Choma, spokesman for the association, said of the commission’s decision, although it wishes the commission would drop the idea entirely.

“It’s a positive move,” said Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Vancouver-based Telus Corp., the country’s third largest wireless carrier, said of the commission decision.

“This removes what would have been a distracting sideshow” at the October obligation to serve hearing, he said.

Iain Grant, managing director of the SeaBoard Group, a Montreal-based telecommunications consultancy, also agreed with the commission move.

Rather than caving to the wireless industry, Grant said, “its caved to common sense and logic.” The Harper government has already directed the commission to keep regulation to a minimum, he pointed out.

Grant, too, is disappointed the commission is still mulling over getting into wireless data services regulation, no matter how small. The commission would be better off looking into more important issues, he said, such as investigating international roaming rates charged by wireless carriers.

The CRTC regulates voice and data services of wireline carriers and voice service of wireless carriers in a variety of ways, one of which is to ensure they comply with the non-discrimination terms of section 27 of the Telecommunications Act.

It says Canadian carriers can’t “unjustly discriminate or give an undue or unreasonable preference toward any person”

However, since 1996 it has kept its hands off wireless data services, in part because at the time few services were available. That has changed radically in the past five years.

But when the CRTC said in recent months that it wanted to re-examine wireless data forbearance (a legal term which means non-regulation), the wireless industry became alarmed. In part, the concern was that the commission didn’t suggest there were any limits on where it would go. But wireless data services are now the fastest growing revenue sector of the telecom industry and new regulations aren’t welcome.

In response, the wireless association quickly agreed that Section 27 would apply to wireless data – without explaining how — and urged the commission to look at regulation separately from the obligation to serve hearing.

Exactly how Section 27 will apply to wireless data services will apparently be the focus of the written submissions.

Limiting to the commission to looking into overt discrimination may not be enough, says David Fewer, director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic. His association will tell the commission it should also oversee any traffic management practices of wireless carriers as well, as it does for wireline data carriers.

Last October the commission set out rules under which Internet providers have to control their traffic management policies. Carriers want to sometimes slow traffic to prevent individuals from hogging bandwidth.

The commission largely agreed, but said carriers would need its permission to block content to a user or slow time-sensitive applications – such as voice services – too much.

Fewer’s association, which represents consumer and public interests in areas of privacy and consumer protection, hopes the CRTC will clarify its position on wireless.

Marc Choma said so far the wireless association believes the commission should have the power to look into unjust discrimination. When asked how far the commission should be able to go, he referred to an association letter to the commission which acknowledges the concerns of content producers that carriers will prefer some Web sites to others.

Allowing the CRTC the authority to apply S. 27 to mobile wireless data carriers “should fully assuage these concerns,” the letter said.


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