The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, born more than a generation ago in 1968, was created to serve the public interest within the radio and television sphere. Later, the CRTC's jurisdiction was expanded to include telecommunications -- and also renamed to accommodate this change. In the years following, the CRTC went through various other metamorphoses, with the most recent coming in 1993 through the Telecommunications Act.
Needless to say, over the past eight years the backdrop of telecom across the world over has changed dramatically. Some of the past broadcast-oriented media, delivered via the standard top-heavy, centralized infrastructure, is now being challenged by their unicast, interactive counterparts, made possible via completely decentralized topologies. Looking back over the past year, the balance of corporate power in the sector has been thrown for a loop, with the implosion of many over-leveraged carriers and service providers. We've seen the great booms and busts; the waxing and waning of all those who have been involved in the transmission of voice, video and data. And so has the CRTC.
Our regulatory body has been both witness to, and a part of, a telecommunications revolution. There are some questions, though: Has the Commission kept up with this tremendous rate of change in the telecom sector? Are they doing enough to regulate this sector? Should they even bother regulating it at all, or allow market forces alone to dictate its future? How does the consumer fit into the picture?
Regarding the CRTC's capacity to change with the times and their respective market environments, they don't fare any better or worse than the majority of their counterparts across the industrialized world. Actually, they probably don't fair much worse than the corporations, themselves. Why? Because the specialized talent just isn't there yet.
When was the last time you came across someone with a degree in network engineering? Network engineers are the people who make data communications possible and universities are only beginning to think about offering a degree in this field. The corporate sector must rely on either existing engineers (electrical, preferably) and/or those who have obtained vendor certifications, like those offered by Cisco, to fill these positions at the present time.
What's more is that too few people out there understand the multiple components or "layers" that make data communications possible. You'll often encounter those who understand one layer extremely well, but don't know very much about the others. An MSO or telco may thoroughly understand the physical layer -- which deals with wiring, modulation schemes, signal propagation and the like -- but they may not have a good handle on, say, the network layer. The network layer deals almost exclusively with the realm of arranged or "packetized" data, all of which is constructed according to a set of rules, such as the Internet protocol (IP). Entities which serve solely as Internet service providers often understand virtually every aspect of the network layer, but have limited knowledge of the physical layer. This makes proper communication between two people -- or two whole corporate entities -- to be of utmost importance when each understand their own integral role in the layered world of datacom.
Perhaps within three to five years the school system will catch up with the telecom sector and start offering degrees in network engineering and the like. Until then, not only will related policy be on shaky ground, but a relatively high degree of incompetence and mishaps will have to be tolerated within the sector as a whole. Indeed, there are few other areas where there is such tolerance towards problems that arise as a result of incompetence, inexperience and communication difficulties. Both consumers and corporations have put up with the same kinds of problems, but it can't last forever. Getting the right personnel in both management and service positions will be the key to ending these problems, once and for all.
Getting back to the Commission, how much regulation is required in this type of environment? Upon examining other regulatory regimes, it seems they hold a practically ubiquitous laissez-faire stance when it comes to telecom in general. But is it the right stance? Probably not, due mainly to the fact that consumers have been so badly abused by service providers, particularly those in the United States. The absence of any customer support standards and consumer protection provisions is appalling.
Looking specifically at the CRTC, it isn't a matter of establishing new regulations, but enforcing old ones. It's been roughly five years since Canadian cable MSOs were regulated as common carriers and a whole lot longer since the same occurred with our telcos. Yet, has the Commission bothered to enforce their ruling with respect to the Internet medium?
I'm still waiting for it to budge, after more than a one year hiatus on the subject. What good are rules if they aren't even enforced? Why make them in the first place? The CRTC's nonchalance and inaction on this issue is undoubtedly looked upon as a serious break in credibility by some, and understandably so.
What's next on the horizon for the CRTC? A government review? Federal cabinet might think of re-evaluating the role of the regulatory body in this day and age, since this last occurred in 1993. Currently, the CRTC reports to Parliament through our Minister of Heritage. The preservation of Canadian culture, although important, describes only one aspect of the CRTC's duties. The primary goals of the CRTC, as I see it, are to regulate Canadian content, broadcasting and telecommunications. Shouldn't the Commission then be restructured so it can better serve these responsibilities? One potentially efficient scenario would see it split up into three separate entities: one for content, one for broadcasting and one for telecom. Doing this would show the kind of leadership Canada has in the rapidly changing world of telecom.
Let's face facts -- some sort of changes must be made to the structure of the CRTC so it can better cope in today's dynamic environment. We can't wait every eight years for the Commission to be "updated" -- it needs to happen whenever change demands it. The CRTC must be able to adapt to new challenges and circumstances as it sees fit, without first being spoon fed from our Ministry of Heritage, Industry Canada, or any other government department.
From personal experience, I can tell you that they have not adapted anywhere as well as they could have. Had the CRTC taken to task some of the worst service problems ever encountered by consumers, which I reported to them at the end of 1998, it's very possible that I would have never become involved with the Rogers @Home Users' Association (now the RBUA), in the first place.
Christopher Weisdorf is president of the Residential Broadband Users Association. www.rbua.org.
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