The recent Rogers outage has spurred a flurry of policy recommendations from experts and elected officials, including legislation that would recognize telecommunication services as essential public ones, but experts say much of the responsibility to act falls on the federal telecom regulator.
The July 8 Rogers outage, which left over 12 million Canadians in a communications blackout and affected access to 911 emergency services, prompted the House of Commons industry committee to hold hearings. Rogers executives, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne, and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission officials were among the witnesses who testified on Monday.
During the hearings, MPs searched for solutions, including whether more laws were needed to ensure telecom services were regulated like public utilities.
“This is obviously an essential service,” said New Democrat MP Brian Masse. “Why not a telecom bill of rights?”
The outage has led to added scrutiny of the telecom industry as well as critiques of the CRTC for its regulatory role.
Bram Abramson, a principle at 32M, a regulated telecom advisor, said the Telecommunications Act already recognizes telecom services as essential and that the answer to the Rogers outage isn’t “shiny new laws.”
“Ultimately, I don’t think the problem is that we don’t have enough laws, or that there isn’t recognition that it’s important,” Abramson said.
The CRTC is responsible for carrying out the objectives outlined in the Telecommunications Act, which calls for "reliable and affordable telecommunications services of high quality accessible to Canadians in both urban and rural areas in all regions of Canada.”
“The problem is that the actual regulatory framework put in place to respond to those broad principles wasn’t up to the job,” Abramson said.
Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor, said public utilities have been discussed in the context of services that are inadequate in some communities. In the context of the Rogers outage, Geist said he took the ideas raised by MPs to reflect a “palpable frustration” and a search for solutions.
“The idea of either labeling certain services as essential services or as public utilities all go to the notion of a more aggressive approach from a regulatory perspective,” he said.
During the hearings, Conservative MP Tracy Gray asked the head of the CRTC, Ian Scott, whether the regulator was fulfilling its mandate.
Scott said yes, it was.
The CRTC faced criticism from experts who testified on the effect of the outage on access to emergency services.
Ben Klass, a doctoral candidate at Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, told the committee the regulator has some responsibility to bear.
“(The CRTC’s) processes must be improved and perhaps it should be required to rethink its relatively permissive approach to regulating critical services,” Klass said.
The CRTC says it is reviewing a submission from Rogers addressing the causes of the outage and will determine next steps.
The experts who testified at the hearings laid out a series of suggested policy changes and called for the CRTC to lead a full public inquiry that extends beyond its current investigation.
In his testimony, Champagne said he expects the CRTC to do a full investigation of the outage, and he referred to new policy directives his office issued in May to the CRTC aimed at enhancing competition in the telecom industry.
Geist said although he didn’t call for a public utility model in his recommendations, there are clear next steps that can be taken from a regulatory standpoint to address these concerns.
He advocates compensation models for consumers, greater transparency from telecom companies, better communication processes during outages, and the levying of penalties.
Geist said the federal government has failed in providing adequate oversight of the regulator, noting the testimonies of Rogers executives, Champagne and the CRTC officials sounded similar.
“They all sought to paint the Rogers outage as this exceptional one-off that needs to be addressed, as opposed to being open to examining the more systemic problems that plagued the industry."