Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum
Oct 26, 2006
Proposed Telecom Policy Places Too Much Faith in Market Forces, Citizens’ Forum Warns
"We were looking at telecommunications policy through a social and community economic development lens rather than an industry lens,” according to Marita Moll and Leslie Shade, organizers of the Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum held in Ottawa, October 19-21.
The Forum brought together policy experts, academics, and representatives from over a dozen community and public interest organizations across Canada to discuss the implications of telecommunications policy reforms currently being considered by Industry Minister, Hon. Maxime Bernier. The proposed reforms, which include weakening consumer protection guarantees and eliminating regulations aimed at protecting Canada’s cultural sovereignty in favour of maximizing market forces, were recommended last spring by the Liberal-appointed Telecommunications Policy Review Panel (TPRP).
Participants in the Forum generally agreed that the TPRP Report places far too much faith in “market forces” in an era when access to advanced telecommunications services has become essential to economic, social, and political participation. “Canadian citizens, consumers, and communities will be poorly served if the Minister implements the Panel’s recommendations without more public input,” insisted Dr. Michael Gurstein of CRACIN and Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Training and Development.
"Relying exclusively on market forces; to guide telecommunications is a dangerous myth, and not well supported by the evidence available," noted Andrew Clement, Professor of Information Studies at the University of Toronto.
"Direct government action is an imperative both to the provision of broadband services wherever Canadians live and to providing the means and the knowledge for Canadians to use those services effectively" said David Murdoch, Halifax Regional Community Access Program (CAP) Association Coordinator.
"Canada would do well to learn from the mistakes already made south of the border in the U.S., where we embraced aggressive deregulation sooner,” suggested Ben Scott, Policy Director for Free Press, a Washington, D.C. media policy think-tank. Scott went on to point out that, since 2001, the U.S. has fallen from 4th to 12th in OECD rankings for broadband penetration.
The Forum also affirmed that telecommunications performs an essential role in the maintenance of Canadian sovereignty and identity and that this principle should be retained in any new version of the Telecommunications Act.
The Industry Minister is also considering an overhaul of Section 7 of the Telecommunications Act, which articulates the objectives of telecom policy in Canada. "The proposed rewrite of section 7 of the Telecommunications Act would eliminate important policy goals such as reliable, high quality service and the protection of consumers from telecom-specific marketplace abuses. It would also remove key provisions including the requirement for just and reasonable rates and the rule against unjust discrimination. Without these goals and basic ground rules, we can expect lowest common denominator approaches to telecommunications service in Canada and widespread marketplace abuses. More than ever before, we need such principles in order to ensure that telecommunications in Canada continues to serve the public good as well as the private shareholders of dominant players," said Philippa Lawson of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC).
Marc Raboy of McGill University finds this type of meeting all the more important “in the context of technological convergence, in which questions of telecommunications policy also concern what we still call ‘the media’. Which is to say, they do not relate only to economics or society in general, but more precisely to the very nature of the public sphere.”
Also considered at this meeting was the National ICT Strategy proposed in the TPRP Report. “Such a strategy is important, but we would like to see a great deal more weight given to community input than has been proposed so far,” said Peter Frampton, of the Learning Enrichment Foundation, a social agency that offers programs and services to low income areas in the Greater Toronto Area.
The group felt broadband access was key to economic and social development and therefore should be treated as an essential service. However, on the TPRP’s proposed strategy to deliver broadband to remote and rural areas, known as U-CAN, the message was that the major benefactors of this subsidy would be the largest telephone companies rather than communities. “The outlined financial obligations are simply too onerous for any other group to play” said Garth Graham of Telecommunities Canada, a group that supports Canadian community networks. "That leaves communities unable to pursue their own ideas and choices about connection and development."
The Alternative Telecommunications Policy Forum was convened by the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN), a SSHRC-funded research partnership established in 2003 to investigate the status and achievements of community-based information and communication technology (ICT) initiatives in Canada, and was financially supported by a SSHRC INE public outreach grant.
More information about this Forum can be found at www.cr acin.ca.
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