by Stephen B. Simpson
Regional Commissioner for British Columbia and the Yukon
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
to the meeting of the Northern Communications and Information Systems
May 1, 2012
(Check against delivery)
Thank you for your kind introduction. This is my third visit to Whitehorse since becoming a Commissioner, and somewhere close to my twelfth visit to the North overall. Each time I am always made to feel very much at home.
I welcome this chance to bring you up to date on our work at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). My colleague, Commissioner Peter Menzies, has also spoken to your group in the past. We hope you find our input and participation helpful in advancing items on your conference agenda.
While the CRTC doesn’t have a direct role in your Working Group, we have a keen interest in issues affecting the North. We recognize that the North is in play in a way we have not seen in past. We are making a real effort to understand the needs and goals of communications in the North, recognizing the geographic barriers as well as demographic and other challenges unique to this part of the country.
We are fully sensitive to what the North wants, versus what the South has.
You’re seeing a new level of direct CRTC engagement in the region. Our objective is to balance the system, as much as possible, for communities and businesses operating North of 60, as evidenced by last December’s decision regarding the provision of telecommunications services in Canada’s North.
This decision followed a public hearing, held in Yellowknife last October, when we got to hear first-hand from Northerners about some of their frustrations with their service. During the hearing, we heard that many communities have been plagued by service outages.
We got a sense of the fragility of communications in the North as we experienced both a power failure and satellite failure while we were there. That reinforced for us the instability of communications in the North.
Part of the issue is Northwestel’s aging infrastructure, which is not being replaced in a timely manner to meet the demands of today’s customers. The company may have been doing the best it could in a challenging environment. However, its planning was not, in our view, sufficient to satisfy a growing appetite for more reliable service and more innovative options.
You know, better than anyone, that many features Southerners take for granted are not widely available in the North. More than just an inconvenience, that’s a serious disadvantage for governments and people running businesses in the North.
In a digital age, Northern Canadians deserve to have access to reliable and high-quality services comparable to those offered in the rest of the country.
The Commission has ordered Northwestel to come up with a plan by early July detailing how it will modernize its network. This will form the basis of a comprehensive review of the company’s infrastructure and services over the next two years. Based on what we are hearing and seeing, we are encouraged.
Where possible, the Commission prefers market solutions over regulatory intervention. Clearly, in a monopolistic situation, market forces cannot take effect. That’s why we are opening Canada’s North to local telephone competition. Residents in many parts of the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut could soon have the option to choose from competing telephone service providers.
Of course, this assumes that other private sector interests step up—and that is something over which the CRTC has no control. The question is whether the market can support competition in a way that will provide real and sustainable choice for users. I am hoping this workshop will shed some light on this issue.
Our Northwestel decision underscores that the Commission is monitoring the level of service offered to Canadians and will take action where necessary. Our goal is to try, as much as possible, to ensure all Canadians have access to similar services, terms and conditions as those available in the South.
In today’s information age, when the world operates on 24/7 access to information, all Canadians must be able to count on quality services.
This same philosophy is evident in the Commission’s decision last September on vertical integration, which ensures a wide choice of television programming on all platforms. Vertical integration is all about controlling content—from its creation to its distribution—on different platforms.
We believe Canadians shouldn’t be forced to buy a mobile device from a specific company or subscribe to its Internet service simply to access their favourite television programs.
We are establishing measures to eliminate the potential for this country’s biggest players to restrict consumer choice or harm their competitors. The decision prohibits companies from offering television programs on an exclusive basis to their mobile or Internet subscribers.
Companies will be allowed to offer exclusive programming to their customers provided that it is produced specifically for an Internet portal or a mobile device.
We’ve also implemented measures to ensure that independent distributors and broadcasters are treated fairly by large integrated companies. And we’ve instituted a code of conduct to prevent anti-competitive behaviour and make sure all distributors, broadcasters and online programming services negotiate in good faith.
If the industry fails to demonstrate that it has made significant strides in introducing consumer-friendly options, we will take regulatory action as required.
Admittedly, this decision benefits Southern Canadians the most. But the same principle is also reflected in last year’s decision related to residential broadband Internet access.
By the end of 2015, the CRTC expects all Canadians to have access to broadband speeds of at least 5 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads—regardless of geographic location. This is the minimum speed we believe consumers in rural and remote areas should be able to receive. We are working with the industry and government partners to obtain accurate information on the progress being made to meet the speed target.
The industry is actively responding to market demands and we have every confidence in its ability to meet the target.
I would note that the Arctic Communications Infrastructure Assessment’s report contained quite a few interesting recommendations, particularly to improve broadband access in northern communities. Some companies have already come forward with proposals addressing the recommendations, such as the one recently announced by Telesat.
This is encouraging news and a tribute to the tremendous work of your organization.
Mackenzie Fibre Optic Link
Other promising developments also point to improved telecommunications services in the North.
I am aware of the Northwest Territories’ plan to establish the Mackenzie Fibre Optic Link. It would see the Inuvik Satellite Station, which already hosts satellite dishes for the Swedish and German Space Agencies, become a world class satellite receiving station hosting multiple satellite dishes. Apparently, Inuvik is one of the few locations on Earth that are globally positioned to download from satellites. And a feasibility study suggests it is economically viable.
If these projects go ahead, they will undoubtedly help to provide innovative services at affordable prices for the people and communities of the North.
And these aren’t the only projects that will have a positive impact on Northern Canada. For instance, the new ViaSat-1 satellite is expected to deliver download speeds of up to 10 Mbps to rural Canadians.
The satellite was officially launched in January of this year, providing commercial services over North America. The new high-capacity system is moving satellite into a much more competitive position in the broadband service marketplace. This should help to reduce the North-South digital divide.
Collectively, these developments will make a major difference in the lives—and livelihoods—of Northerners. Access to a state-of-the art communications infrastructure will open doors to unprecedented opportunities across all three territories. This progress is essential for Canada's safety, sovereignty and security, and the economic prosperity of the Arctic communities.
These are, clearly, exciting times for members of your working group. They are testament to the power of partnerships such as this, which bring together public and private sector interests to advance common goals.
I congratulate you on your impressive progress and wish you every success as you seize these emerging opportunities for the benefits of your membership and all Northerners.
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