Regulatory debate heats up

Representatives of two telecom service providers locked horns during a panel discussion on phone regulations recently.

The exchange occurred at Expo Comm Canada, a communication tech conference in Toronto. The event brought together representatives from carriers and the government to discuss how the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulates the telecom market.

Of note was a disagreement between Janet Yale, executive vice-president, government and regulatory affairs at Burnaby, B.C.-based incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) Telus Corp., and Chris Peirce, who holds a similar title at Allstream Corp., a Toronto competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC).

Yale called for an overarching discussion about regulating local voice service, pointing out that new technologies like voice over IP (VoIP) and wireless are becoming popular beside plain old telephone service. Perhaps it’s time to consider how new technology impacts local service and the regulations surrounding that stalwart offering, she said.

Peirce, however, indicated that the CRTC has its hands full trying to ensure a level playing field for CLECs and ILECs these days.

Yale said there’s no harm in considering what the future might bring. “Why can’t we discuss what the end-game looks like?”

Peirce reiterated his point that the CRTC’s calendar is full up with present-day concerns. “It’s a pretty esoteric discussion right now,” he said of Yale’s suggestion.

On other matters Peirce and Yale were not so far apart. Each of them called for quicker action from the CRTC to deal with carriers that ignore regulations. Yale said the Commission should wield tougher enforcement for competitive abuse.

Earlier in the discussion, Peirce said his company seeks “balance” in the industry so competitors like Allstream can become viable in a sector once controlled solely by the likes of Telus and Bell Canada, which did not have a representative on the panel.

“We don’t have anywhere near the competitive entry that we want,” Peirce said, indicating that ILECs still own the majority of the market. Nonetheless, he added that the Commission has “gotten some of this stuff right,” which leads him to believe it’s just a matter of time before Canada’s telecom industry levels out.

Kenneth Engelhart, vice-president, regulatory at Rogers Communications Inc., a communication service provider in Toronto, pointed out that the telecom industry has been hard on CLECs. “They’ve all gone bankrupt, which isn’t a good sign.”

Engelhart questioned the idea that wireless voice service would seriously disrupt the local voice market. He said that argument is old — so old that he wonders if mobile service will ever prove to be an equal alternative to wireline offerings.

Michael Binder, assistant deputy minister, spectrum, information technologies and telecommunications with the federal government, said it’s difficult to balance regulation and market influence in telecom. “We’re always torn between doing too much and waiting to intervene.”

David Colville, vice-chairman, telecommunications at the CRTC, said the Commission has done a good job regulating telecom players. “Our agenda has been quite successful,” he said, explaining that there are more services available and prices for those services are on the way down.

Colville said the CRTC would step back from regulating local voice service when it proves competitive, but until then the Commission plans to maintain its regulatory watch.

He also said it’s not easy to impress all parties. “There will always be criticism.”

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