federal regulation is needed

Just when Canadians need it most, Ottawa is abandoning oversight of the nation’s telecommunications system.

Just when Canadians need it most, Ottawa is abandoning oversight of the nation’s telecommunications system.

This has been happening for a long time, but the process accelerated recently.

Just a little more than a week ago, Industry Minister Maxime Bernier did something extremely rare. He overruled the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC was recommending that voice-over-internet phone service be regulated in the same way as traditional phone services.

This meant the big guys, like Bell Canada and Telus, would be regulated while newcomers wouldn’t.

Labeling the VoIP market highly competitive, Bernier told the CRTC ‘forgetaboutit.’

“We firmly believe that eliminating unnecessary economic regulation will stimulate competition in this new and fast-growing market,” he said in Toronto.

“It will mean lower costs, fewer regulatory proceedings, and more competitive markets,” Bernier said in a speech in Toronto.

Bell and Telus cheered the announcement.

And that should make the rest of us nervous.

Bell and Telus own a huge chunk of the broadband capacity in Canada.

In plainspeak, these communication giants control the delivery system.

Without federal oversight, they can theoretically block all comers, reducing competition.

They have been known to do this.

In Whitehorse, Northwestel, a Bell subsidiary, has a long-established reputation for protecting its monopoly. So it was no surprise it recently blocked VoIP service here.

The CRTC went along with Northwestel’s arguments. But it built a sunset clause into the deal, and told Northwestel to prepare for VoIP in the North.

Now, with weaker federal regulation over such services, is the North more likely, or less, to get such service?

Contrary to popular belief, the internet is no longer a wide open frontier.

Controlled by a few media giants, like Bell, the bandwidth we have grown accustomed to is being shaped.

Increasingly, people are at risk of being manipulated in an environment they believe is free.

Last year during a labour dispute, Telus blocked access to a website operated by its union — it didn’t want people accessing the information.

Bell owns the Globe and Mail. It could theoretically block, or more likely slow access to its competitors’ sites, like the National Post — passively encouraging its customers to choose the Globe.

If Rogers decided it was pro-life, it could block pro-choice websites. Type abortion into its search engine and you could face a list of adoption agencies.

This is the danger of a two-tier internet that those who understand such things warn about (see Geek Love, page 37).

It is highly technical stuff, beyond the understanding of most folks.

And that’s precisely why federal regulation is needed — to guarantee citizens’ access to information on the public internet.

It should be noted that cellphone service in Canada is not regulated by the CRTC.

Look where that landed us.

Bell Canada is signing up customers under long-term contracts, and then, in some cases, it is extorting a year’s worth of extra monthly fees after billing those customers usurious rates for downloads.

In Whitehorse recently, it has charged customers long-distance rates for local calls. Some people have had those erroneous bills waived only after agreeing to pay an extra monthly charge for toll-free long distance.

Is this right? No.

Who can the customer appeal to? Nobody.

If these were traditional land-based phones, the CRTC would have been reviewing the rates, making sure they were reasonable.

The public would have a public forum to challenge the telco.

Regulation protects the public from large corporations with a stranglehold over the nation’s communications system.

It is needed.

The CRTC knows this.

Which is why it was calling for regulation of voice-over-internet telephone service.

Conservative Bernier has put the kibosh on that.

It’s a mistake.

And the public will pay for it. (RM)