Sweeping telecom law rewrite suggested

Ottawa should rethink its communications policy and draft a new all-encompassing act more in tune with the new digital world, the head of Canada’s federal telecom and broadcast regulator said Monday.

OTTAWA — Ottawa should rethink its communications policy and draft a new all-encompassing act more in tune with the new digital world, the head of Canada’s federal telecom and broadcast regulator said Monday.

The call for sweeping changes comes as the federal government is in the middle of a review of foreign ownership rules in the telecommunications industry.

But in a speech to a television festival in Banff, CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein said something more comprehensive is needed and that the acts that currently govern telecoms and broadcasters are outdated.

For one thing, he said, the distinction between broadcasters and telecommunications companies is virtually meaningless, since giants like Rogers Communications (TSX:RCI.B), Shaw Communications (TSX:SJR.B), BCE Inc. (TSX:BCE) and Quebecor (TSX:QBR.B) have fingers in each pie.

“The industry is going through fundamental change in technology, in business models and in corporate structures,” he said in notes of the speech released in Ottawa.

“It has become a single industry, thoroughly converged and integrated. Yet it continues to be regulated under three separate acts which date from 20 years ago.”

Von Finckenstein said the best approach would be to encompass all communications policy under one comprehensive act, and possibly under one minister.

The aim of the act, he said, would be to create a structure to regulate the “transportation of bits, whether by wireline or wireless technology, and whether they are carrying voice, video or data.”

It would also include a scheme to ensure Canadian content in broadcasting, as well as a mission objective defining the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s role in promoting culture and values.

Under the new scheme, the work of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission would also need to be considered, he added.

Von Finckenstein noted that the CRTC’s ability to regulate has been already impinged by the new digital reality that puts consumers, not regulators, in control.

Given that consumers have access to a wide range of digital platforms, including computers and hand-held devices, they can bypass regulated media such as conventional and cable TV.

“Therefore the commission’s ability to regulate through control of access is very much reduced,” he said.

The review should include an examination of what the CRTC does and whether that too should change.

For instance, von Finckenstein said the government should consider whether there are too many commissioners, and whether the commission should have fewer powers to regulate and more powers of enforcement against abusers.

The CRTC has been embroiled in a number of clashes with the current Harper government.

Most recently, the commission was overruled by Ottawa on its finding that cellphone operator Globalive was insufficiently Canadian owned.

The broad objectives of the CRTC, he said, should be to encourage competition and to limit intervention to issues of market failure.

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