Reporting back from the CRTC’s hearing on a wireless code of conduct: Days 1 and 2
On Monday the CRTC, Canada’s telecom authority, kicked off a week-long hearing that could change the future of cell phone service in Canada. Their plan is to develop a national Code of Conduct to protect cell phone users—a demographic that includes nearly 80 percent of Canadian households.
Canadians have been speaking out about Canada's broken telecommunications market for a long time, increasingly as more realize that we're falling behind the rest of the world in price and service.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC)
The hearing, which is taking place in Gatineau, QC, began with a presentation from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC). This group has fought onside with Canadians time and again, including as a key player in the fight against telecom conglomerate Bell’s takeover of Astral media. They made it clear early on: Canadians “want and demand better contracts now.”
PIAC centered their arguments on the need for more choice in the cell phone market. It’s no small wonder: Canada has a highly concentrated telecommunications market, with only three large cell phone providers controlling nearly 94 percent of service. This means higher prices for Canadians, and a lack of incentive for innovation that could hold our digital economy way back behind the rest of the industrialized world.
PIAC pointed out that there are major structural impediments that allow providers to keep a tight grip on their customers, and prevent them from making a switch even when they’re unhappy with their service. Canadians are "frightened out of their minds” of termination fees, PIAC’s executive director John Lawford stated.
The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA)
The CWTA, which presented after PIAC, did what one would expect a group of giant corporations with a virtual monopoly on an increasingly essential service to do: they said everything they could to protect their bottom lines, and they framed it as being in Canadians’ best interests. While it is great to see even a lobby group like this realizing that the citizen-centric frame has become the dominant one, it is still pretty painful to hear sentences start with “Consumers want...” and end with an antithetical talking point.
In their oral presentation and in response to the questions that followed, the CWTA put forward a position on the wireless code that would see fewer notifications for Canadians about potential fees, locked devices, and more long-term contracts (which, according to the group, is something Canadians want). If Canadians don’t like it, they argued, they can simply avoid post-paid cell phone contracts altogether.
The CWTA also argued that the reason Canadians don’t switch between carriers is not the lack of choice in the cell phone market, but rather that they have “healthy” relationships with them. OpenMedia.ca supporter Hubert Figuiere suggested an appropriate parallel on Twitter: “inmates don’t escape from prison because they have “healthy” relationships with other inmates and the COs.”
According to the CWTA, the Code doesn’t have to cover everything: Canadians can always go to court. Unfortunately, however, in addition to recommendations for a weakened Code of Conduct, the CWTA also pushed for the CRTC’s rules to supercede provincial safeguards. This would mean that the strong legislation that has come about in places like Quebec and Manitoba would be overridden by the Code, and unless the CRTC ultimately builds on those provincial frameworks, that means fewer protections for many Canadian cell phone users.
Union Des Consommateurs
Quebec-based consumer group Union Des Consommateurs pushed back against the CWTA proposal in their presentation, arguing that the CRTC’s Code of Conduct should apply nationally, and that where there are provincial rules the stronger of the protections should apply.
The group also notably maintained that if Canadians are able to switch providers more easily, those providers are more likely to offer better service.
Big Telecom company Telus presented last on Monday, and finished their time before the CRTC the next morning before OpenMedia.ca (myself) and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) presented.
Telus is generally the least hated of Canada’s Big Three cell phone giants, their policies and practices often being less offensive than those of Rogers and Bell. However, in proceedings like this one they often try to leverage that good behaviour to argue that protections for Canadians need not be strong. They did exactly that this week as well.
Telus’ comments, in general, attempted to reign in the scope of the code in relation to mandatory notifications and caps on additional charges.
OpenMedia.ca and CIPPIC
Alongside CIPPIC’s Tamir Israel, a public interest technology lawyer who we’ve worked with for many years, I presented oral comments for grassroots group OpenMedia.ca. After hearing from Canadians through many channels and campaigns relating to cell phone horror, I did my best to hammer home the notion that the Code must facilitate choice and innovation, safeguard against price-gouging, and be grounded in the lived realities of Canadians. You can find the full OpenMedia.ca/CIPPIC comments here.
Between OpenMedia.ca and CIPPIC, arguably the most influential public interest groups in telecom, and Rogers, the biggest of the Big Three, came three academics from Ryerson University and York University. As PIAC notes in their wrap-up blog, the presenters “emphasized that although the creation of a wireless code was movement in a positive direction, it only represented one element of the need to increase accessibility to telecommunications services, particularly for vulnerable groups.”
Rogers echoed the CWTS, unsurprisingly, in their push for a weakened Code that would supersede provincial protections. In response to many of the measures for transparency and other safeguards, they came up with excuses time and again for why a strong code would be difficult and time-consuming to implement.
“There’s not a real problem here we need to solve for,” a Rogers representative went so far as to state.
Luckily, the CRTC, which had been asking tough questions to all parties throughout the hearing, seemed to understand the urgency of fixing Canada’s broken wireless market.
“We can’t ignore that there’s a problem,” responded Commissioner Candice Molnar.
On Monday, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais also stated: “the market’s not working”.
To be continued
There’s a lot happening at these hearings, some palatable only to policy wonks, but much that would be of interest to any Canadian wanting a strong digital future. Unfortunately there were parts I had to leave out for now. For more detailed and up-to-the-minute coverage, check out live tweets from myself and OpenMedia.ca, and keep your eyes peeled for more updates this week.
The hearing continues today.