Telcos in Canada: Ethics, monopolies and regulation

How the Canadian regulator forces Big Biz to play ball ...

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Sysadmin blog Telecommunications Politics in Canada is pretty standard. There are people worried that our regulator – the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) – has succumbed to regulatory capture. There is the common burden of institutional inertia and there are the usual sorts of shenanigans involving various levels of upper government.

Canada is certainly no stranger to public sector controversy, and the CRTC has its share of detractors. The media is not exactly friendly; complaining about something or other at the CRTC is always an easy story to write.

Despite all of this, it isn't all doom and gloom. Every so often we get a CRTC commissioner like Stuart Langford – known as "the man who won't do lunch" (National Post, 10 June 2000) for the strict ethical line he took on refusing to engage with industry lobbyists. We also have exceptional Canadians – exemplified by Steve Anderson, Michael Geist and Jean-Francois Mezei – who go above and beyond to monitor the CRTC and keep it honest.

The scope of expectations placed upon the CRTC is as varied as the history of telecommunications in Canada itself. Sometimes, the CRTC is called upon to mediate disputes between carriers. Other times, it is to oversee the creation of a national do not call list, or slog through the far more weighty issues of the day.

Part of the job is the mundane (but important) act of catching regulations up to technology. In the early days of telecoms, number portability was a difficult and expensive proposition. Eventually, technology made it a realistic possibility. Making it reality became the job of the CRTC.

The role of regulator is critical; telecommunications has a tendency towards natural monopoly. Competition in this sector absolutely requires oversight and regulation. The role of the CRTC in high-stakes multi-billion dollar politics promotes easy emotional investment. Arguments get heated and innumerable column-inches are devoted to the topic.

There's more to the CRTC – or any telecommunications regulator – than the West Wing-style drama that pops up every few years. If we step down from the commissioners themselves, there is an entire organisation filled with people whose job it is to help ordinary Canadians – and Canadian businesses – deal with telecom issues.

Paulette Leclair took the time to walk me through the complaints process. When a complaint is submitted to the CRTC, the first round of evaluation determines if the complain is within the scope of the CRTC's mandate.

Most complaints from individuals and small businesses are not actually regulatory issues. They are screw-ups by someone fairly far down the food chain at one of the larger telcos followed by a lot of covering. These sorts of complaints are forwarded to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), an industry-funded mediation and arbitration body created for this purposes.

All signatory telcos agree to be bound by CCTS rulings, and it has proven quite efficient at dealing with the steady stream of telcos' oopsies that are simply a fact of life. The CCTS will also forward out-of-scope complaints that land on its doorstep to the CRTC.

If a complaint is discovered that falls within the CRTC's mandate, then a series of fairly common sense actions are taken. If the complaint doesn't involve a spat between two telecommunications providers, then the CRTC will go directly to the service provider in question, read the complaint and ask "what gives?" If response is warranted, it will ask the telco to respond to individual. Everyone gets copies of all the back and forth.

If the response by the telco is within bounds and a resolution can be found, then the matter is dropped and everyone goes home happy. If this fails, the complaint is kicked up the stack and lands on the desk of one of the CRTC's in-house telecommunications industry experts. Rinse and repeat until either a resolution is found, or it has to go before the Commission for a ruling.

If the complaint involves two telecommunications providers, things are changed up. Step 1 is privacy goes out the window. Service providers must file disputes as a "part 1 application". This is a public document. It is reviewed by experts and after approximately a week will be posted online.

These sorts of disputes end up in front of the Commission. Telco-on-telco action here generates the headlines that feed the drama machine of an otherwise boring industry.

In Canada, the big guys are forced to play ball. Telus, Bell, Rogers, Shaw and the other dominant regional carriers must take part in these proceedings. Smaller telcos are encouraged to register, but are not required to do so. They are not regulated by the CRTC (neither are their tariffs), but registration with the CRTC enables them to submit complaints as a service provider and intervene in other complaints.

If something happens regarding telecommunications in Canada, there is a way to have your voice heard. If your telco drops the ball, email the CCTS. If suspect your telco may be purposefully trying to pull a fast one on you, call the CRTC. If you are an indie service provider and you think the big boys aren't playing fair, register with the CRTC and raise a fuss. You won't always win, but it is worth it to try. ®

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