Speech by Stephen B. Simpson, Regional Commissioner for British Columbia and the Yukon, Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

To the meeting of the Northern Communications and Information Systems Working Group

Iqaluit, Nunavut
October 30, 2012

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Thank you for inviting me, once again, to attend your Working Group meeting. I’ve gone from one end of Canada to the other over the past six months, from Whitehorse last May to Iqaluit today, thanks to your meetings.

An important part of my role at the Commission is to meet with various people to hear first-hand about their needs and interests. I welcome these opportunities to visit different parts of the country, including the Arctic. Each time, I learn more about the region and the challenges Northerners face in accessing high-quality communication services.

I am here to bring you up to date on some of our recent work at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) that will be of interest to your members.

As I explained last spring, the CRTC doesn’t have a direct role in your Working Group, but we do have a keen interest in issues affecting the North.

We understand that you face unique geographic, economic, demographic and infrastructure conditions that affect the quality of communications available in this region. We know, too, that, in the digital age, Northern Canadians need access to reliable and high-quality services comparable to those offered in the rest of the country.

We held public hearings this time last year in Yellowknife to gauge the quality of the services available up here. We heard that many communities have been plagued by service outages and that Northerners were, justifiably, frustrated with their service.

Where possible, the CRTC prefers market solutions over regulatory intervention. Clearly, in a monopolistic situation, market forces do not prevail. That’s why we decided to open Canada’s North to local telephone competition.

Earlier this summer, the Commission approved Northwestel’s application to provide interconnection services. This is an important step in the introduction of local competition, as it allows for the transfer of telephone calls from one network to another.

It is the Commission’s understanding that both the SSi Group of Companies (SSi) and Ice Wireless/Iristel have expressed their intention to compete in providing local services across the North. To do so, any potential competitor must first meet certain obligations, such as filing interconnection tariffs and agreements, as well as various technical requirements.

SSi has started the process to permit it to operate in Northwestel’s territory.

We also have a current proceeding looking at Northwestel’s Wholesale Connect proposed service, which would provide backbone services to wholesale customers. The application, including details of the service, is available on the Commission’s website.

While we take steps to introduce local competition in the North, we also expect the company to modernize its network. In early July, Northwestel submitted a five-year plan in which it proposed to invest $273 million to, in its words, “deliver services comparable to those available in southern Canada.”

The company pledged to:

Northwestel recently announced that it is scaling back its plans. It is no longer proposing to expand its high-speed Internet access and 3G or 4G wireless services in the North. This comes after the CRTC denied an application by its parent company, Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), to buy Astral Media's radio and television services.

Had the deal gone forward, BCE would have been required to fund a number of initiatives as part of a tangible benefits package. BCE had proposed to set aside $40 million of that fund for Northwestel to improve the communication system in the North. The company now says it cannot proceed with all the changes outlined in its Modernization Plan.

In the coming weeks, we will publish a notice asking for comments on the plan as well as other issues related to Northwestel’s regulatory framework. Our proceeding will help us determine whether the company’s proposal fully addresses the concerns about its network that were identified in our December 2011 decision.

As an organization with a direct interest in these issues, I encourage you to bring Northerners’ interests to the CRTC’s attention once this proceeding begins.

The Commission’s new Chairman, Jean-Pierre Blais, has placed a premium on addressing consumer concerns, which the Bell-Astral decision reinforced.

He is also a strong advocate of public input in CRTC decision-making. As he has said on a number of occasions, “Without the public’s participation in our work, we cannot serve the public interest.”

It’s easy to participate in our proceedings. The simplest way to voice your views is via the CRTC website. Just go to the “Public Proceedings - Open for Comment” page. Choose a notice number, application number or file number, and then click on the “Submit” button.

Alternatively, you can mail a formal submission to our offices in Gatineau or send it by fax. All the information you need about all of these options can be found on the Commission’s website.

We encourage all Canadians to have a say in decisions that will affect them. This includes members of the NCIS. As an impartial administrative tribunal, we value having a wide spectrum of views to consider as we make our decisions. I would remind you that the role of the CRTC is not to advocate on behalf of any group, but to act in the public interest.

One final point I want to touch on are your members’ contributions to the Arctic Communications Infrastructure Assessment report. I see from your agenda that you are providing an update on the report.

The Northern Communications Information Systems Working Group deserves full credit for this excellent document. I want to congratulate you for your leadership in this important area.

Your work is already having an impact. For example, companies have responded to your recommendation to improve broadband access in northern communities and come forward with proposals. This is encouraging news and a tribute to your organization.

I understand that your strategy moving forward is to ensure appropriate communication services. As the report notes, this “may be one of the few truly affordable infrastructure efforts that will help to address some of the challenges facing northern residents, and the sustainability of communities in the long run….”

I know the Working Group will play a pivotal role in helping organizations such as the CRTC, and others across various levels of government, to help solve the communication challenges you have identified in the Arctic.

I will be listening with great interest to your discussions today, and wish you every success as you carry on this valuable work.

Thank you.

 

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