It didn’t take long for the knives to come out at a telecommunications hearing into which basic services
phone companies should have to offer rural customers.
Plans were called “unadulterated nonsense,” “ludicrous,” “beyond outrageous” and simplistic when carriers were given an opportunity Wednesday to rebut the testimony by competitors during the first five days of testimony to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
Some of the most heated words came from the Ontario Telecommunications Association (OTA), representing 19 small phone companies in the province, who hammered at the demand from some of the country’s largest cable companies to do away with the subsidies telcos get in high cost areas.
If the subsidy is gone, add the cablecos, there is no need for incumbent phone companies to have an obligation to serve all customers in their exchanges or offer basic services, which the subsidy helps underwrite.
“Maybe it's a rural way of looking at life, but when we want advice, we ask people who know something about what they are talking about,” said Tracy Cant, director of finance and regulatory matters at provincially-owned association member Ontera, which covers a large swath of northern Ontario.
“The cablecos' position on obligation to serve must be dismissed for the rhetorical regulatory gibberish it is,” Cant said.
Cable companies have complained competitors get subsidies, but small incumbent local exchange carriers (SILECs) say they are under considerable pressure from cable companies pushing into their territories.
“Why would the commission give serious credence on this issue to a group of companies that have no idea what it means to operate an obligation to serve?” the association asked, referring to the obligations incumbent phone companies have to meet.
But speaking for the cable companies, Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ vice-president of regulatory affairs, retorted that cablecos once did have an obligation to offer service to every residence in their areas. However, that was removed 10 years ago under deregulation, he said.
The OTA didn’t get away unscathed. Natalie MacDonald, vice-president of regulatory affairs for Bragg Communications, whose Eastlink cable network stretches across nine provinces, complained the OTA’s plan to protect SILECs – even after being amended Wednesday --is an attempt to stop competition.
Concerns about SILECs not being ready to face phone competition from cable or independent Internet providers is a “red herring,” she said, in an era when the hearing is discussing how people are shifting to cellular service.
The hearing is reviewing the commission’s decade-old basic service and obligation to serve rules that all incumbent phone companies face. However, it has focused on two issues: What to do about the rural carrier subsidy and the lack of high speed Internet access that an estimated 700,000 to 1 million Canadian households in outlying areas face.