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Canada's telecom sector awaiting key regulatory decisions after transformative year

Canada's telecom sector faced a significant shakeup in 2023 after Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne handed down a mandate requiring the CRTC to prioritize consumer rights, affordability, competition and universal access.
Vicky Eatrides, Chairperson and CEO of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) waits to appear before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (PACP) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Canada's telecom sector faced a significant shakeup in 2023 after Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne handed down a mandate requiring the CRTC to prioritize consumer rights, affordability, competition and universal access.

The directive, which rescinded a 2006 policy direction for the agency to rely on market forces when making decisions, has since guided the direction of a number of regulatory proceedings.

Headed into 2024, many of those remain ongoing, or have resulted in rulings being contested by parties involved. Here's where some of those deliberations stand as 2023 winds down.

Internet competition

In a move that quickly drew the ire of Bell Canada, the CRTC announced on Nov. 6 it would require that company, along with Telus Corp., to provide independent competitors with access to their fibre-to-the-home networks in Ontario and Quebec within six months.

The move is meant to stimulate competition for internet services in Canada's two largest provinces, where smaller competitors have suffered the most in recent years according to the regulator.

But within hours, Bell responded by saying it would cut more than $1 billion of planned network investment in 2024-25. The company also then filed documents with the Federal Court of Appeal seeking to challenge the CRTC's temporary ruling, and for a stay of the decision pending the outcome of the appeal process.

The CRTC's partial decision is part of a broader review it launched in March into the rates smaller competitors such as TekSavvy pay the major telecom companies for access to their networks.

That review, which could potentially determine whether the CRTC's direction will be made permanent or applied to other provinces, is set to resume with a public hearing on Feb. 12.

Outage notifications

More than 100 responses poured in after the telecommunications watchdog invited feedback on an issue that has served as an annoyance to most Canadians at one point or another: service outages.

In February, the CRTC asked for input on when and how carriers should be required to provide notifications surrounding major service outages and file post-incident reports. It noted these outages have been on the rise due to factors such as extreme weather, cyberattacks and accidents.

As an interim measure, the CRTC directed all carriers to notify it within two hours when they experience a network outage, and file a report within 14 days.

The regulator had extended the deadline for submissions in the consultation to provide Canadians who are deaf or hard of hearing with the opportunity to participate. The consultation is now closed for comments, but the CRTC has not yet detailed the next steps in the process.

Roaming fees

The fees Canadians pay to use their phones while travelling abroad made the news this year as Bell and Telus hiked their roaming rates.

The trend also caught the attention of Champagne, who in March asked the CRTC to look into it, saying he was concerned about roaming getting pricier as phone bills in other jurisdictions decline. At the time, the minister said companies could be increasing roaming fees as a way to raise overall costs without consumers being aware.

The CRTC is still in the early stages of studying the issue. In June, it gave carriers a month to submit information on their international roaming agreements — including an explanation of how rates were set and the rationale for any hikes over the past five years.

In the federal government's fall economic statement, it noted the CRTC is being asked to propose "concrete" next steps in 2024.

Broadcasting modernization

Monday opens the final week in the CRTC's 15-day hearing on modernizing the regulatory framework for broadcasters. The public consultation came in response to the Online Streaming Act, which received royal assent in April and is meant to update federal legislation to require digital platforms to contribute to and promote Canadian content.

In September, the CRTC mandated streaming services offering broadcasting content in Canada and earning $10 million or more in annual revenue to provide information to the watchdog about their activities. It also required some online streaming services to provide information related to their content and subscribership, and make content available in a way that is not tied to a specific mobile or internet service.

The commission is currently exploring whether streaming services should be asked to make an initial contribution to the Canadian content system to help level the playing field with local companies that are already required to support Canadian content.

The CRTC is aiming to make key decisions about its new regulatory framework during the current phase of its work, with an eye toward implementing new rules in late 2024.

Improving Far North services

One of the CRTC's consultations will enter its fourth calendar year in 2024 as it continues studying improvements to telecommunications in the Far North. The first phase of the consultation originally opened in November 2020 with a call for comments from those in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Yukon and areas in northern B.C. and Alberta.

More communities were asked to participate in 2022 and a public hearing was held in April of this year. The commission says a few key themes have emerged from the talks, including that everyone living in Canada should have affordable phone and internet access, services should be reliable and allow for the same online activities for those in Canada's south, and that more internet services competition is needed.

The regulator has also heard about the importance of high quality and affordable access to phone and internet services to the goal of reconciliation. The CRTC is now seeking feedback until late December from Nunavut and Inuit Nunangat communities on what actions it should take to improve internet and phone services there.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2023.

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version stated Canada's three largest telecom providers hiked their roaming rates in 2023.