Industry minister’s office report back: Canadian voices echo through Parliament

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OpenMedia.ca spoke with Industry Minister Christian Paradis’ office via teleconference earlier this fall. We also brought one of our public interest lawyers, David Fewer, from CIPPIC with us. We asked you to help set the agenda by filling out our pro-Internet survey and sharing your thoughts via our FacebookPage and on Twitter, and we did our best to hit as many of your points as possible. Our two-hour conversation was largely successful. One high point came when Paradis’ senior policy advisor indicated support for the idea of imposing financial penalties on internet openness violators.

I’m writing this blog to report back to you, the pro-Internet community, on the meeting’s details. Read on to learn more about how our industry minster’s office sees digital policy in Canada.

Internet Metering (Usage-Based Billing)

“Canadians want more open and affordable telecom services. They want more choice. Agreed?”

This is how I began the conversation with Paradis’ office. Right off the bat I felt it was important to debunk the guise of neutrality that Big Telecom has been advancing over the years. This is not a two-sided issue—a few monolithic telecom companies are on one side and on the other are Canadians, civil society, businesses of many stripes, and our economy: our future.

“You have a majority for four years and Canadians expect this government to ensure UBB (usage-based billing) is eliminated. Half-a-million Canadians signed the Stop the Meter petition and led the biggest online campaign in Canada’s history to make sure decision makers get this message,” I added.

Paradis’ office seemed to agree that Canada has a need for more choice and affordable access to the Internet. Generally, they’re aware that the current, uncompetitive nature of the telecom market’s has led to unaffordable rates. They understand that action is needed, and there seemed to be healthy skepticism about big phone and cable companies’ claims to the contrary. Clearly the voices of Canadians who rallied against Big Telecom’s price-gouging—those who signed the Stop The Meter petition and spread the word, and the 90,000 who sent public comments to the CRTC—are still echoing through the halls of Parliament.

Key Question: Is the government still opposed to Internet metering?

Answer: The government is hoping the CRTC comes up with a reasonable ruling on this matter  -- a ruling that supports independent ISPs having control over their pricing. Paradis’ adviser indicated they would not be happy with a CRTC decision that does not give indie ISPs pricing autonomy.

Question: Small independent competitors should be able to differentiate their products so that they can provide a meaningful option for Canadians. Currently indie ISPs do not have full control over the services they offer. Other countries like the UK have enabled indie ISPs with positive results for choice and affordability. Does the government support indie ISP autonomy?

Answer: They are open to talking about this, but it’s not their focus right now. They do want to encourage competition and seemed open to the idea of giving indie ISPs more control over their pricing and services.

Net Neutrality (Internet Openness)

 Canada has some of the world’s strongest Internet openness rules, but when it comes to enforcement we fall far short. Since the CRTC came out with their framework for openness two years ago—which aims to prevent ISPs from discriminating against or preferring any online content or applications, OpenMedia.ca staff and supporters have been working tirelessly to get the government to support enforcement.

In our meeting we told Paradis’ office that audits, combined with financial penalties for those who break the rules, would ensure Canadians the ability to freely decide which applications they run on their Internet connection, no matter which device or pricing tier they choose.

I told Paradis’ office: “Parliament should pass legislation to allow the CRTC to levy monetary penalties that can be used to enforce transparency requirements and regulations. This is not hard to do. If ISPs break the rules, we need to make them pay. What we want is essentially the same penalty power you’ve given the Competition Bureau. So far, it appears that power is sending effective financial signals when it comes to anti-competitive advertising practices

Canada has recently seen Internet openness violations: Rogers, the ISP that has been named “world’s worst throttler”, admitted to restricting online choice by throttling online games including World of Warcraft. Rogers claimed that the discriminatory throttling was a side-effect of their throttling another type of Internet traffic called peer-to-peer (P2P), which they falsely claim is a legitimate network management practice. It was only after months spent in an uphill battle that Canada’s gamers were able to convince the CRTC to move the case against Rogers to a still-weak enforcement division.

Over the last few years Rogers and other Big Telecom companies have attempted to justify Internet openness violations by claiming that certain types of traffic, predominantly P2P file-sharing traffic, are overwhelming their networks. A report that we at OpenMedia.ca released earlier this year, demonstrates that this is clearly not the case, and that restricting access to P2P services (among others) is unnecessary. The report’s findings are reinforced by Bell’s recent decision to pull back some of the discriminatory restrictions it had been imposing on P2P. This move strongly indicates that throttling P2P is an Internet openness violation, which means that Big Telecom is even more guilty of discriminating against the Internet than many had previously thought.

Key Question: Will Paradis’ office take a stand for online choice by implementing audits and penalties for ISPs who break Internet openness rules?

Answer: The government will not be focused on this in the next six months, but would like to keep the conversation going. Internet openness enforcement provisions could be added into the Digital Economy Strategy. One of Paradis’ policy advisers indicated that financial penalities resonates with the government’s tough on crime image.

Mobile Diversity and Choice

We asked Paradis’ office about the recommendations from our digital strategy report, Casting An Open Net, which among other things called on policymakers to use the upcoming mobile spectrum auction to encourage more choice for mobile and Internet providers.

Specifically, we asked that the government reserve high-quality spectrum (the 700 MHz band) for innovative new market entrants, and local community services, like the City of Fredericton’s public wi-fi initiative. Paradis’ office told us they had been considering making somewhat lower quality spectrum (2500 MHz) available for wireless Internet instead. I said the connectivity is important enough that we should be utilizing high quality spectrum for this purpose.

We suggested that the government make spectrum available to lease rather than to own, but Paradis pushed back again.

“That would make it hard to invest,” he said.

“Lowering the barriers to spectrum ownership would mean more choice, which would encourage investment,” I countered. “And above all it would allow for more fair and affordable Internet and cell phone access.”

Paradis’ office told us they were considering spectrum set-asides that open the spectrum auction so independent providers can gain access. They are taking the need to provide set-asides to create more choice for cell phone providers seriously, but they would not commit to the idea. They are, however, also looking seriously at improving choice through tower-sharing—meaning carriers would have more access to infrastructure—and free roaming.

They also made it clear that they won’t be swayed by misleading campaigns that seek to prevent expanded choice and affordability, namely theone Rogers is running. Paradis’ office knows that most of our networks were built under public monopolies and regulatory protection, not by today’s big telecom companies, and that smaller competitors deserve access. They also seemed to like the idea of requiring spectrum auction winners to build infrastructure in rural and remote communities. Our suggestion was to provide generous set asides to increase choice, require those benefiting from the set-asides to provide access to rural and remote communities, and use some of the money raised in the auction to match infrastructure investments made in those regions.

High-Speed Internet Access

Paradis’ office generally accepted the idea that we need to improve broadband speeds and cost. Multiple studies have shown that Canada is falling behind the rest of the world in these categories. Paradis’ office agrees that Canadians should be leaders, not laggards.

Final Thoughts

Well pro-Internet community, there aren’t as many tangible moves forward here as we’d like, but Paradis’ office did give us over two hours and they seemed very interested in our views. It’s too early to tell whether this Industry Minister will listen to Big Telecom or if he’ll heed the calls of Canadians for a champion of openness and affordability.

To facilitate the latter, we sent Paradis our crowdsourced report on Internet openness and our action plan. He has received it, and one of his senior policy advisers said both him and Paradis would read it.

One thing is for sure, whether it’s spectrum, affordability, or openness, Paradis’ office now knows where Canadians stand—if the will of the 550,000-strong community of pro-Internet Canadians wasn’t already undeniable, it is now. Our first objective for this meeting was to get that across, and I think it’s safe to say that we did. Now, no matter what happens, Paradis cannot claim ignorance.

For the Internet,

Steve Anderson
Executive Director, OpenMedia.ca



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