Canada’s telecommunications and broadcast regulator, the CRTC, remains largely unchanged since it was formed in 1968. It’s time to drag it into the 21st century, write Sean Speer and Len Katz.
This op-ed is based on their recent MLI paper, which makes recommendations for reforming the CRTC.
By Sean Speer and Len Katz, Oct. 25, 2016
Nineteen sixty-eight was a transformative year. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was elected Prime Minister. The Beatles released the White Album. And Captain Kirk was part of the first interracial kiss aired on television.
Much has changed in the nearly half-century since that tumultuous yet historic year. Except, for the most part, for the mandate of the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). But that, too, may soon change. A confluence of economic, political, and technological factors have led to calls for a new mandate for the CRTC from think-tanks, academics, and even some politicians. Now is the time for a new digital policy for the digital age.
The commission was established in 1968 in an era of cultural nationalism, limited competition and airwave scarcity. Its mandate became about managing the “orderly development” of Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications sectors in the “public interest.”
Now is the time for a new digital policy for the digital age.
The explosion of new technologies, market structures and consumer expectations has disrupted this quaint vision for the CRTC. Its capacity to manage the “orderly development” of Canada’s communications sectors has been undermined by market dynamism and technology-enabled disorder.
Consider that we now have more than 28 million wireless subscribers and 93 per cent of Canadians are covered by the highest-speed network access. Two-thirds of adults own a smart phone and roughly half own a tablet. The average Canadian spends roughly 45 hours per month and rising accessing the Internet — the highest usage rate in the world.
The Internet and its wide range of applications and opportunities has changed the landscape and yet Ottawa’s digital policy and legal framework has failed to keep up. The result is that the CRTC’s regulatory decisions have often been inconsistent, heavy-handed and counterproductive.
Regulating how much Canadian content is shown on traditional over-the-air television when viewers are spending roughly one-third of a day per week watching Internet-based content is not only a losing battle, it’s putting Canadian firms at a disadvantage in a highly competitive and fragmented marketplace.
We need a digital roadmap that shifts the CRTC’s focus from defensive protectionism to a confident, positive vision for the digital economy based on market forces and a responsiveness to consumer demands. A study published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute sets out a policy blueprint for this type of reconceptualization of the CRTC in particular and Ottawa’s digital policy in general.
The CRTC’s regulatory decisions have often been inconsistent, heavy-handed and counterproductive.
One example: The minister of Canadian heritage is presently consulting on Canadian content objectives and their application in the new era of fragmentation and asymmetry between traditional, regulated players and exempt upstarts. Most agree that this unlevel playing field is bad public policy but the consensus about the solution is less durable.
Some have contended that Ottawa should extend Canadian content rules to the exempted firms such as Netflix and YouTube in the name of fairness. Not only is it unclear whether the CRTC has the legal authority to regulate these Internet-based services, the idea that the commission can solve the problem in the short- and long-term with more regulation belies the evidence.
A simpler solution is to eliminate these mandates so that Canadian-based broadcasting companies can better compete. It’s not to say that these firms would not produce or disseminate Canadian content but it would mean that it’s based on global consumer demands rather than bureaucratic diktats.
And to fulfill the “public good” aspect of Canadian content objectives in the domestic market, the CBC’s mandate could be refocused as the sole vehicle for producing and delivering mandated Canadian content. If a public broadcaster is to have an ongoing place in the 21st century, its role should be filling a potential market gap rather than simply being just another option in an otherwise dynamic market.
These changes to how Ottawa pursues Canadian content objectives are an important but hardly the only step in modernizing the CRTC’s mandate. The general direction should be the adoption of a neutral, market-driven regulatory model that exhibits greater humility with regards to the commission’s ability to anticipate technological advancements, market developments and consumer expectations.
If a public broadcaster is to have an ongoing place in the 21st century, its role should be filling a potential market gap rather than simply being just another option in an otherwise dynamic market.
The “public interest” is no longer served by the CRTC’s attempts at the “orderly development” of the broadcasting and telecommunications markets. Dynamism and disorder are not threats to be managed but rather opportunities to be leveraged. The era of cultural protectionism is over. The time has come for a new CRTC mandate.
Len Katz and Sean Speer are authors of the recent Macdonald-Laurier Institute study “A Mandate Review of the CRTC: A New Digital Policy for the Digital Age.”
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