Federal committee suggests new ways to improve telecoms competition (and offers slight rebuke of CRTC)

On June 22, 2021, the federal Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology released its study Affordability and Accessibility of Telecommunications Services in Canada: Encouraging Competition to (Finally) Bridge the Digital Divide. The study offered recommendations for improving competition in Canada’s telecommunications industry, and also provided a rebuke for recent CRTC decisions that have caused wholesale internet rates to rise.

In the course of its study earlier this year, the committee heard testimony from 38 organizations, including advocacy organizations and Canada’s Big 3 ISPs. The committee’s goal was to investigate a variety of topics related to telecommunications regulations, including subjects that Cybera commented on in its January 2021 submission

While many of the committee’s 16 recommendations pose more general or long-term solutions — such as improved data collection, expanded funding eligibility and the creation of a broadband strategy — many of its recommendations address more immediate regulatory concerns. In our submission to this study, and in previous proceedings, Cybera commented on wholesale rate regulation and access to support structures as a crucial way to remove barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment and to foster affordability. 

On this topic, the study proposed the following recommendations:

Recommendation 10: That the CRTC rapidly address existing barriers that are preventing telecommunications service providers from accessing support structures more easily. The committee proposed establishing an independent inspection, prevention and enforcement mechanism, with cost sharing among providers–users to upgrade the network so that it meets high efficiency and safety standards.

Recommendation 11: That the Government of Canada collaborate with provincial and municipal governments to address existing barriers so that telecommunications service providers can access support structures more easily.

Recommendation 14: That the Government of Canada issue a directive to encourage the CRTC to revise its process for implementing and appealing new rates. The committee would specifically like to prevent incumbent telecommunications service providers from using the appeals process as a delay tactic. For example, in cases where newly announced rates are appealed, the CRTC could:

  • Apply an interim rate equal to a 50% difference between the old rates and the newly announced rates; and
  • Respect a strict time limit to issue a decision.

It is important to note that the committee’s study took place at the same time the CRTC undertook a number of important proceedings with respect to the regulation of wholesale rates. In August 2019, the CRTC lowered the rates incumbents charge to wholesale providers for access to their networks. This was followed by a number of court proceedings pursued by incumbent providers to challenge these rates, and thereby delay implementation of the CRTC’s decision. In May 2021, CRTC reversed its August 2019 decision, a move that significantly hampered the ability of wholesale providers to provide competitive pricing on their services. Many of these providers were forced to discontinue services or raise prices as a result. 

The committee’s final report expressed frustration with the CRTC’s decision to raise wholesale rates, citing, among others, testimony from Cybera and wholesale service providers like TekSavvy. The study went further to say that the “federal government should intervene to encourage the CRTC to put in place decisions that promote specific objectives, including affordability and accessibility.” 

With respect to access to support structures, many interveners complained of undue delays and unfair costs associated with access requests to utility poles, many of which are regulated provincially and are governed by access arrangements with incumbents. While this issue is currently being investigated in a CRTC proceeding, the committee recognized the importance of efficient regulation of infrastructure sharing. It recommended the CRTC and federal government work to ensure that existing barriers are removed. 

Cybera will continue to monitor the committee’s study as it is presented to the government, which can choose to reject or implement its recommendations in further legislative proceedings in the coming months.