By Perry Hoffman
OTTAWA - Jean-Pierre Blais wasted little time during his keynote at IIC Canada’s annual conference Monday in restating that the interests of Canadians as consumers, creators and citizens will be of utmost importance to the CRTC during his mandate as chairman.
An example of how he will make sure individual Canadians are front and centre will be when the CBC/Radio-Canada appears before the Commission next month for its licence renewal hearing. “I don’t think our proceedings should be attended only by people who are paid to be there in their official capacity. Let’s level the playing field,” he said. “We’ve offered evening sessions to make it easier for Canadians to come and share their views. The sessions will be set up in a less formal way in order to encourage a more open dialogue.” (This was something he shared with MPs earlier this month during an appearance in front of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, as reported by Cartt.ca.)
The CRTC’s agenda is also being influenced by this consumer focus. The Regulator’s efforts on handset theft and its call on the wireless industry to come up with solutions is another example. Currently, a stolen cellphone or tablet can simply be reactivated on another carrier’s network, and “this just doesn’t make sense,” Blais said. “But if the industry can’t come up with a satisfactory solution, we are prepared to take whatever regulatory action is necessary to protect the interests of Canadians,” he warned (and Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association president and IIC Canada chair Bernard Lord had just introduced Blais).
Perhaps one the CRTC’s more decisive efforts to protect the interests of consumers is its decision to hold a public hearing on a wireless code of conduct early next year, which Blais said, “will set some standards for the relationship“ between wireless carriers and their customers. “Many consumers have expressed frustration about the confusing legalistic language of their contracts, which makes it hard to figure out what rights and options they actually have. We will be looking at the clarity and content of those contracts,” he said. “We’ve invited comments on what the code should say, which providers should be bound by it, and how should it be enforced and evaluated.”
Such a code, added Blais (pictured on the big screen Monday at IIC), will force wireless carriers to clarify contracts with their customers, which in turn allows Canadians to be informed of their wireless service choices. “This is the kind of market intervention we can provide to encourage healthy competition, and that benefits consumers,” he said.
The Commission’s renewed push to ensure the Canadian citizen is at the centre of all of its decisions is also stretching into the wholesale telecommunications services market. Just last week, the CRTC announced a consultation that aims to reduce the level of confidential data on the carriers' costs to provide such services. “Once it’s out in the open, it can be tested and challenged, which will make it much easier for us to set fair and reasonable rates, and will give all parties stronger grounds to trust the result,” Blais said, adding this should cut down on the number of appeals filed.
But he also pointed out a more transparent wholesale costing process will decrease regulatory shenanigans. “I also hope that it will put an end to regulatory gaming which is to no one’s advantage especially Canadians who all of us have a duty to serve,” he said.
Blais opened his keynote wondering what the CRTC would look like in five years – at the end of his mandate in 2017 (a question he asked of everyone who appeared in front of him during last month’s Bell/Astral hearing). After acknowledging the Commission needs to improve how Canadians think of the organization and "our brand needs work," in closing, he said he envisioned the CRTC “as a trusted enabler” in ensuring Canadians have access to world-class communications and again referred to the importance of consumer protection.
“In 2017, I see an empowered consumer making informed choices in a fair and competitive marketplace.”