Barring a last minute extension, CRTC Chair Jean-Pierre Blais’ term will come to an end this week. For those new to the CRTC, it is difficult to overstate just how much changed both procedurally and substantively during his five years as chair. For some context, consider a 2006 invitation I received to participate on a panel at the Telecommunications Invitational Summit, a by-invitation-only event that brought together many in the industry for off-the-record, Chatham House Rules discussions on issues of the day. I was grateful for the invitation – I was there to defend the then-emerging issue of net neutrality – but recall being shocked walking into the venue to see senior telecom executives shooting billiards and having a drink with CRTC commissioners.
It is fair to say that those off-the-record bonding-style events between the regulator and the regulated became a thing of the past under Blais. In fact, weeks after he was named chair of the CRTC, I was called into his office in one of several meetings he had with consumer and public interest voices as his first order of business. I had a mixed history with Blais to that point (he was the lead on copyright policy at Canadian Heritage for many years), but he left no doubt that bringing a public interest voice and perspective to the CRTC was his top priority.
That priority was soon mirrored by the CRTC’s oft-repeated strategic goal of placing Canadians at the centre of their communications system. One critic recently suggested Blais wanted to place himself at the centre, but it seems to me that what he really did was place the Internet at the centre. That meant shifting the way the CRTC engaged with the public to account for the power of the Internet to bring new voices and perspectives to the table and dramatically altering policy so that all Canadians are best positioned to access and take advantage of the global network.
The procedural changes under Blais will have an impact long after a new commissioner and the current Liberal government consider whether to amend his substantive rulings. Before Blais, new participants sometimes faced a rough ride at Commission hearings. For example, when Open Media first appeared in 2011, they faced skeptical questions from the CRTC Vice-Chair about who they represented, their funding, and whether they were non-partisan. That changed over the course of Blais’ term, as the CRTC embraced innovative ways to bring new voices and perspectives to their hearings, launching everything from Internet surveys to Reddit discussions to online videos. It is easy to pick faults with some of these initiatives, but the change in approach is striking. Government rarely rewards risk-taking in policy development, but the CRTC was willing to experiment with new methods to make its work accessible to the public. A new commissioner may bring a different perspective, but there is no reversing a more open, accessible CRTC (and there is still more accessibility work to be done – surely a user-friendly website is not an impossibility).
From a substantive perspective, the policy targets for telecom and broadcast involved placing the Internet at the centre. For telecommunications, Blais emphasized competition and affordability. This included enacting the wireless code that put an end to three-year contracts (Canada was an outlier at the time with three-year contracts locking consumers into their provider) and caps on data roaming fees. The code also included a mandatory unlocking requirement that is likely to be updated with a ban on unlock fees in an upcoming ruling. The Commission also established broadband access as a basic service, set ambitious Internet access targets, safeguarded net neutrality, and mandated wholesale sharing of fibre access. Where it fell short, it was usually due to a lack of full courage of its convictions as was the case in the MVNO decision that failed to actually mandate access for upstart providers.
On the broadcast side, I recently noted that Blais recognized that the advent of the digital networks, an abundance of consumer choice, and the effective removal of longstanding analog protections for Canadian creators would gradually reduce the relevance of the regulator and leave it with two choices. The first – favoured by the creator groups – was to temporarily prolong the protections by extending regulations to Internet services and increasing regulatory costs on broadcasters. The second was to jump on the digital bandwagon, gradually removing the safeguards and creating a regulatory environment premised on competition at all levels – creators, broadcasters, and broadcast distributors. Anyone following the CRTC decisions in the Blais era knows that he chose the latter.
The result is a digital regulatory framework designed to enable Canadian creators to compete on a level playing in Canada (net neutrality), encourage the creation of programming that finds international audiences and partnerships (TalkTV), grants consumers greater television choice (skinny basic and pick-and-pay) and more competitive Internet services (wholesale fibre access), ensure universal Internet access (TalkBroadband), maintain deregulation of Internet-based services (new media exemption), facilitate new Canadian Internet entrants (hybrid services), pushes broadcasters to reduce their reliance on U.S. programming (simsub), and uses group licensing to support a more competitive marketplace for Canadian content. As was the case with telecom, where the CRTC fell short it was in not going far enough, as occurred with only a partial ban on simultaneous substitution.
Anyone shaking up the status quo can expect criticism and Blais got his fair share. Some was largely the result of challenging and questioning powerful interests in a manner to which they were unaccustomed. BCE CEO George Cope did not expect to face direct questions from Canadians through Blais at the Bell-Astral hearing and that exchange fuelled acrimony for years with Canada’s largest telecom company. Similarly, creator groups who traditionally viewed the CRTC as an ally in retaining old-style regulations without much regard for the global competitive landscape were flummoxed by a Commission with a different view on how to best foster Canadian content, leading to exaggerated claims about the end of Cancon.
While those criticisms reflected frustration over a changing regulatory environment, the internal dissent with Raj Shoan and the occasional outbursts unbecoming a CRTC Chair are harder to ignore and are a blemish on Blais’ achievements. Some of Blais’ blunt public comments were welcome (e.g. calling out the double-talk from telcos). However, from the public threats to Netflix to comments about executives and their yachts, there were instances where Blais would have been well advised to rise above the criticism.
Judging a five-year term as CRTC chair should account for all of these issues, but Blais ultimately leaves behind an enviable record. Shifting the culture of a government agency and working to bring Canada’s communications regulatory framework into the digital age is something that largely eluded his predecessors. Blais came to the Commission with an exceptionally ambitious agenda. He achieved far more than could have reasonably been expected and he is likely to be regarded as the most consequential CRTC chair in a generation.