Speech by Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

To the Public Interest Advocacy Centre’s Annual Dinner

Ottawa, Ontario
November 30, 2012

Check against delivery

 

Thank you for your kind introduction and warm welcome.

I’ve looked forward to meeting your members. Our two organizations share many common interests, so tonight’s dinner provides a wonderful chance for us to get to know each other better.

I’m pleased to see so many Commissioners and CRTC staff sitting at various tables around the room. And proud to inform you that, in every case, the CRTC either paid for a table or bought their individual tickets to avoid any appearance of inappropriate behaviour.

There’s no question that we have to get out in the community to ensure we don’t become detached decision makers in an ivory tower. We need to understand the challenges and concerns of Canadians. However, those conversations must take place in an environment that ensures the integrity of our processes and the public trust that has been placed in us.

I suspect I’m speaking to the converted on that score.

I’ve had the chance get to know some of you—like John Lawford, Michael Janigan and Pippa Lawson—fairly well over the years, as our paths have crossed numerous times.

During my first tour of duty with the CRTC in the late 1990s, when I was in the Legal directorate, I served as a taxation officer. On several occasions, I was the one who signed off on requests by parties seeking reimbursement for costs associated with their participation in telecommunications proceedings.

I approved payments to Michael for his work on behalf of various consumer-interest groups in those days. I’m told the payments totalled roughly $13,000 over 1997 and 1998. I don’t imagine Michael has based his retirement plans on that amount, but I trust it helped establish a body of knowledge and served wise decision making.

I’m glad to see that PIAC continues to play a leading role in championing the public interest. One important area that comes to mind is your recent effort to encourage Canadians to share their views on how wireless contracts should be written. Another example is your participation in the CBC/ Radio-Canada licence renewal.

You are performing a valuable public service, which is a testament to Michael’s leadership over the last 20 years. I’m sure that you will continue to build on these accomplishments with John at the helm.

Sharpening our Focus

As you probably know, since my return to the CRTC, I’ve invited staff and colleagues to sharpen the Commission’s focus on the public interest—putting Canadians at the centre of their communication system.

This is reflected in the appointment of Barbara Motzney, who is here with us. Barbara has assumed the new position of Chief Consumer Officer and heads our Consumer Affairs and Strategic Planning sector. She leads a team that will challenge and support us in considering consumer perspectives.

Like me, Barbara believes profoundly that our regulatory approach must reflect the needs and interests of Canadians. That means that quality, choice and affordability must be factored into everything we do.

We want Canadians to have access to compelling and diverse creative content. We want to make sure Canadians can connect to innovative communication services at reasonable prices. And we want to ensure our communication system enhances the safety and interests of Canadians.

Defining the public interest

These objectives reinforce an important point: the public interest is much bigger and more complex than just looking after the interests of individual Canadian consumers. We must also consider the needs of Canadians as citizens and creators.

I’ve been talking about the public interest since my first day on the job, but there seems to be some confusion about this concept. You may have encountered the same problem in your work. Even though you are a public interest advocacy group, for the longest time PIAC has been recognized primarily for its involvement in consumer issues—related largely to affordability.

I am pleased to see your organization is expanding its interpretation of the public interest. In many ways, it dovetails with the CRTC’s broader definition.

Let me explain.

The Commission’s mandate and overarching goal is to make sure all Canadians, including vulnerable populations, have access to essential communication services. No debate about that.

Deciding exactly what constitutes a basic service is open to interpretation, of course. Years ago, it meant having a basic telephone line. In light of the growing importance of broadband to all aspects of Canadians’ lives, I can foresee the day when universal access to broadband will form part of the definition.

Whatever your criteria, there’s no question that Canadian families have a significant investment in the communication system. They spend an average of $2,100 a year on communication services. That's the sixth largest family expense—about what they pay for health care—and some have suggested that this figure is a conservative estimate.

Cost considerations are important. But when I speak of consumers, I’m not just thinking of individuals or about the price they pay for particular services.

Canadian businesses of all sizes rely on the communications system to serve their clients and to help their employees work more productively. So the term consumer includes businesses. And whether consumers are individuals or businesses, they need the very best of what the system has to offer.

This demands healthy competition among multiple service providers—all across the country, not just in major populated areas. In turn, this requires that businesses be able to profit from their efforts and investments. Having a fair chance to make a return on investment is crucial to encourage, and underwrite, innovation. That’s what leads to job creation and builds the foundation for our country’s economic future.

The CRTC requires large incumbent telephone and cable companies to provide essential telecom services to their competitors, of various sizes, on a wholesale basis. We know this is vital to competition. But the Commission refrains from regulating when we are convinced that market forces are sufficient to produce the desired benefits for Canadians.

We want service providers to have the ability to respond to market conditions, because the regulator is a poor substitute for a fairly and properly functioning marketplace.

Another essential part of a competitive environment is having informed and empowered consumers. To this end, over the coming months, we intend to provide information to Canadians to help them make wise choices in an increasingly complex communication environment.

Something else that’s in the public interest is recognizing that the marketplace, alone, will not always address the needs of Canadian citizens.

When I speak of citizens, I include Canadians with disabilities who must have the best possible access to communication services. I am talking about things like closed captioning and described video for television programming, as well as cellphones that serve their needs. I am also referring to people who need access to programming in both of this country’s official languages, wherever they live in Canada.

Especially important, Canadians must have access to news and information programming— including local news—to be able to engage in civic life. Our communication system helps citizens to participate fully in the democratic, economic, social and cultural life of their country, their region, their province and their neighbourhood.

In addition to informing us, our communication system should also entertain and enlighten us, contributing to a better understanding of each other.

That can mean quality educational shows for young children, public affairs programs that help voters make informed choices about societal challenges, Canadian songs on our radios, or TV coverage of the Olympic and Paralympic Games wrapped in the Canadian flag and our local heroes.

The public interest is about public safety and security, too. This includes 911 services and the public alert system, along with the protection of Canadians’ privacy, for example through the National Do Not Call List.

In the 21st Century, the public interest also means making sure Canadians are connected.  In today’s world, it’s crucial that our kids can access information from around the planet as they become global citizens. And it’s not only children that need access to the latest technological developments. As a society, we cannot afford to miss out on the innovations that are redefining the way we communicate, work and play.

This same rule of thumb applies to the work of content creators. As a country, we need to foster Canadian content to reflect Canada to the world. And to create employment for Canadian writers, producers, directors and all the technical support staff that contribute to Canadian productions.

All of the things I’ve just described extend far beyond saving consumers money.

In fact, they often cost money. But, they are investments in the public good. They help to reflect who we are as citizens and as a nation—the raison d’être for Canada’s communication system. So, to focus solely on affordability does a disservice to Canadians, not to mention falling short of the Commission’s mandate.

That’s why the CRTC does not advocate for any particular side. In fact, we are more likely to play the gray keys on the piano in order to keep everybody singing in harmony.

We work to accommodate the interests and perspectives of all segments of society—consumers, investors, artists, disability and minority group members, taxpayers, policy makers and others.

The public interest is as complex as the multilingual, multicultural diversity of this country.

Shared responsibility

Because of this complexity, the public interest is, ultimately, a shared responsibility. We all have a role, whether we represent the public sector, the private sector or non-governmental organizations.

As the American political scientist and noted authority on public administration, James Q. Wilson, once observed, “In the long run, the public interest depends on private virtue.” In other words: it depends on individual action.

PIAC has proven repeatedly that it recognizes that part of its mission is to contribute to this process.

One of the ways groups like yours help to shape these important debates is by taking part in our public proceedings. We are making it easier for you to do just that, because we need more people like you at the table representing the broad spectrum of interests.

In March of this year, we established the Canadian Broadcasting Participation Fund to address the disparity between the Telecommunications Act and the Broadcasting Act. Public-interest and consumer groups can apply for funds to offset the costs of participating in broadcasting proceedings, as they have with telecom proceedings for many years. I trust this will result in a greater participation from PIAC and other citizen-focused organizations.

There are other ways you can help. I mentioned that we intend to make information available to Canadians to help them better navigate what is, at times, a confusing marketplace. PIAC could complement these efforts by providing similar tools.

In keeping with the theme of a shared responsibility, I would also encourage you to work more closely with the private sector on telecom and broadcasting issues in order to arrive at better outcomes for Canadians.

Conclusion

All of us with an interest in these issues have to work together. Fortunately, Canadians consistently manage to be masters of this juggling act.

It’s been said that Canada works in practice even if it doesn’t work in theory. That’s because we have always found a way to accomplish the public interest through private virtue in search of a shared common good.

I am confident that, if we continue to work collectively, all of our interests—indeed, the public interest—will be well served.

Thank you.

 

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