by Marita Moll and David Murdoch
Federal Industry Minister Maxime Bernier is considering changes to the Telecommunications Act, stemming from recommendations by a somewhat obscure policy review panel, which could drastically affect our daily lives.
The Liberal government formed the Telecommunications Policy Review Panel (TPRP) in April 2005, to address major technological advances and changing market dynamics. But most Canadians are unaware of the process — much less the nature and the importance of the TPRP's recommendations — and for who are, it has been difficult to participate.
According to delegates at an Ottawa forum discussing these issues, the Telecommunications Act, which has historically played an important role in our national development, is about to take on a whole new flavour.
The Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum was organized by the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN). Policy experts, academics and representatives from over a dozen community and public interest organizations across Canada discussed the implications of these policy reforms in the context of social and community economic development.
Participants were critical of the direction taken by the Panel in its recommendations. The Report places far too much faith in "market forces" in an era when access to advanced telecommunications services has become essential to economic, social and political participation, according to the participants. If this direction is adopted, they said, government would be abdicating its responsibility to govern, by assuming that market forces could be relied upon to meet such needs.
Telcom recommendations would put too much emphasis on market control.
If the goal is universal access to broadband services, direct government action is an imperative both to the provision of services wherever Canadians live and to providing the means and the knowledge for Canadians to use those services effectively. For example, those who live in a rural or remote part of Canada not currently served by broadband (high speed internet) can't expect "market forces" to deliver what they will need in order to participate fully as members of Canadian society. "Market forces" will only deliver such services where subscribers are sufficient in numbers to make the service profitable.
"Canada would do well to learn from the mistakes already made south of the border in the US, where we embraced aggressive deregulation sooner," suggested Ben Scott, Policy Director for Free Press, a Washington, DC media policy think-tank. Scott went on to point out that, since 2001, the US has fallen from 4th to 12th in OECD rankings for broadband penetration.
Direct government action is also essential to maintain services like the Community Access Program (CAP), which provides support to those needing access to new technologies. These include people on low incomes, seniors, aboriginals, recent immigrants and others who are being left behind as new technologies are becoming increasingly commonplace in daily activities. Currently, the more than 3,000 CAP sites across the country are experiencing a withdrawal of government funding. This massively successful, but financially fragile national network can easily be destroyed by short-term and market-focused thinking.
The Forum also affirmed that telecommunication performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canadian sovereignty and identity and that this principle should be retained in any new version of the Telecommunications Act. Philippa Lawson, of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), pointed out "the proposed rewrite of section 7 of the Telecommunications Act would eliminate important policy goals such as reliable, high quality service and the protection of consumers from telecom-specific marketplace abuses."
She continued, "It would also remove key provisions including the requirement for just and reasonable rates and the rule against unjust discrimination. Without these goals and basic ground rules, we can expect lowest-common-denominator approaches to telecommunications service in Canada and widespread marketplace abuses. More than ever before, we need such principles in order to ensure that telecommunications in Canada continues to serve the public good as well as the private shareholders of dominant players."
Marita Moll is a CRACIN co-investigator and David Murdoch is the coordinator of the Halifax Regional CAP Association. Both are board members of Telecommunities Canada, an alliance of CAP and other community technology centres. For more information on this issue visit www.cracin.ca.