This article originally appeared in the Hill Times.
By Peter Menzies, October 25, 2023
Canada’s communications policy playing field is more uncertain today than it has been in decades.
The cause is primarily the Online Streaming Act (Bill C-11), which attempts to “modernize” the Broadcasting Act by defining all internet-based audio and visual content as “broadcasting.” Promoted by a series of heritage ministers as a simple matter of ensuring that streaming companies support Canadian content, the act has alarmed a thriving community of unregulated online creators while causing targeted offshore operators to question how they can continue operating in Canada.
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) chair Vicky Eatrides, appointed last January, is clearly feeling pressure to implement Bill C-11 as quickly as possible. Following a series of rushed preliminary processes that made it challenging for many companies in the regulatory “rookie” category to participate, the CRTC’s first public hearing is scheduled for Nov. 20.
It involves 127 intervenors, is scheduled to last three weeks, and Eatrides hopes to have initial decisions made by the end of 2024.
With all her staff’s hands to the pumps on that file, Eatrides has shut down dealing with new licensing matters in the traditional broadcasting fields of television and radio for at least two years. All TV licences up for renewal this year were administratively renewed until 2025 (Bell has filed a court appeal). All of those expiring next year were renewed as is until 2026, and the radio industry was informed the CRTC won’t accept applications in that genre for at least two years, putting it in a regulatory cryo-chamber.
Meanwhile, active broadcasting files have been triaged to the extent that they are backed up, in some cases for years, leaving those involved without the decisions they need. The renewal of the CBC’s licence, for instance, remains incomplete 33 months after the CRTC’s public hearing into the matter.
On the telecommunications side, life is much more steady as she goes. Early in July, the CRTC laid out what it described as a more streamlined and flexible manner for determining wholesale access rates with the goal of fostering competition. But these matters are rarely dealt with swiftly, and incumbent companies affected by this new—and, to many, refreshing—approach have a long track record of being able to drag things out.
Competitor access rates is a matter that has preoccupied the CRTC for a decade; the rates have wavered back and forth since at least 2016, and the lack of regulatory certainty has had a debilitating impact on smaller service providers. The largest of those—TekSavvy—threw in the towel early this summer and put itself up for sale.
The management of so-called mobile virtual network operator rates, particularly relevant in the shadow of Quebecor’s purchase of Freedom Mobile, has moved along efficiently. This is another positive sign involving an area in which the CRTC is attempting to foster competition with increased regulatory certainty. When it comes to the telecom side of things, the regulator’s long-standing focus on the fundamental issues of access and affordability is, while complicated in terms of implementation, far more tangible than the ethereal cultural ambitions that have swamped the broadcasting boat.
Two other matters are worth watching.
The first—the CRTC’s role in overseeing negotiations as foreseen in the Online News Act—may evaporate. Meta has moved out of the business of carrying news in Canada, with disastrous consequences for those in the business of creating it. News Media Canada, the industry’s lobbying arm, is now asking the government to bow to Google’s demands before it does the same.
That could mean significant legislative amendments which could eliminate the CRTC’s role entirely. Seeing as the commission has already delayed decisions on which news organizations would qualify until late 2024, this would be a welcome relief.
The second will be whether the CRTC, when dealing with the likes of Disney and Netflix next month, realizes what’s at stake. The United States-based companies aren’t interested in contributing solely through official funds while all the commission appears to want to talk about is how much they should pay and to which funds.
Neither has threatened, as Meta and Google did with Bill C-18, to disconnect Canada if they don’t get the outcomes they need.
Not yet, anyway.
Peter Menzies is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a former newspaper executive, and past vice-chair of the CRTC.