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Canada and the U.S.: no handshakes on telecom policy

FCC moving toward “anti-consumer agenda” while CRTC prepares to crack down on industry.

blais, pai, telecom policy

Diverging Telecom Policy:

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In case anyone wasn’t sure yet, the past week has seen the dramatic differences in Canadian and U.S. telecom policy spelled out, highlighted, underlined and punctuated with oh, about a dozen or so exclamation points.

Never mind awkward handshakes between heads of state. This divergence in approaches is going to have big effects on both countries’ economies over the next few years – if it continues, of course, and there’s no guarantee of that happening on either side.

The U.S. approach is, of course, being dictated by Ajit Pai, President Donald Trump’s choice for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As I summarized in a previous post, Pai is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican and an unabashed fan of market forces, which generally means he hasn’t seen a regulation he likes.

The new chairman hasn’t wasted any time in taking an axe to some of the efforts of Tom Wheeler, his Democrat predecessor. So far, Pai has moved to scrap net neutrality rules, closed reviews of zero rating, cut a low-income broadband funding program and junked a plan to open up cable TV boxes to competition.

The moves have sparked condemnation from consumer advocates and from the editorial boards of two of the most influential U.S. newspapers. The New York Times says the FCC is now pursuing “an anti-consumer agenda” while the Washington Post says it is headed “in a disturbing direction” under Pai.

Meanwhile in Canada, it looks like regulators are about to further crack down on the telecom industry.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission spent last week grilling the nation’s wireless providers over their various practices. The CRTC is in the midst of reviewing its Wireless Code, a set of rules that a few years ago effectively banned three-year contracts and capped roaming fees.

During last week’s hearings, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais struck a tone that couldn’t have been more opposed to Pai’s industry-friendly stance. At times, he seemed to actively channel the dismay that wireless customers often experience when they get their bills.

At least one industry analyst is expecting more regulations as a result.

According to Desjardins analyst Maher Yaghi, the CRTC may look to force wireless providers to segment their bills into separate charges for monthly service and device payments, which would effectively lower bills for consumers once their phone subsidies were paid off. The CRTC might also ban fees for unlocking phones.

“No decision has been issued by the commission, but we believe this review generates regulatory risk across the industry,” Yaghi wrote.

Blais’s term is set to expire this year and his job has indeed been posted. There’s no indication one way or the other as to whether he’ll continue – or whether the CRTC’s pro-consumer approach will also continue – but the Liberal government has signalled that it seems to be just fine with the status quo.

Pai, meanwhile, is off to a rocky start – like much of the new U.S. administration.

With national security advisor Michael Flynn resigning in disgrace, fast-food employees protesting labour secretary nominee Andy Puzder and spokespeople Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer quickly becoming laughing stocks, there’s no guarantee that anyone in Trump’s administration is going to last very long.

The next few months are going to be a time of great uncertainty, at the very least when it comes to telecom policy on both sides of the border. But then again, no one in their right mind went into 2017 expecting it to be an uneventful year.

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