After 13 weeks off from the Parliament Hill routine, MPs returned en masse to Ottawa Monday for the start of the House of Commons’ fall session, where the stage is set for forward momentum on the Liberal government’s yet-to-be defined telecom policy — but don’t expect any major revelations just yet.
Nearing the one-year mark of their majority-government mandate, the Liberals have come no closer to articulating how they intend to follow through on the telecommunications-related instructions given to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.
In his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Bains was directed to “increase high-speed broadband coverage and work to support competition, choice and availability of services, and foster a strong investment environment for telecommunications services to keep Canada at the leading edge of the digital economy.”
However, the most-vigorous conversations about telecom are happening outside of government.
During April’s basic telecom services public hearing, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais called the proceeding the “last, best chance” to formulate some sort of national broadband strategy, in the absence of any government leadership.
When asked about the CRTC’s call to action at the launch of the Innovation Agenda consultation in mid June, Bains said the innovation consultation wasn’t going to duplicate the work the CRTC had done in the basic service hearing, and “if the CRTC has advice, we’re willing to take that into account… as well.”
Since it was released in March, Bains has frequently pointed to the government’s plan in the 2016 budget to create a $500-million rural broadband program as evidence of its commitment to connectivity.
The budget allocated $6 million of the rural broadband program for 2016-17, with $81 million and $87 million to be spent in 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively, and promised to reveal details about the five-year investment “in the coming months.”
But that information won’t be forthcoming at the start of the fall session.
Innovation Canada is “currently concluding a stakeholder engagement process to ensure that the new program supports and aligns with the priorities of our key partners, like the provinces and territories, community representatives, and the private sector and Indigenous organizations,” spokesperson Stéfanie Power said in an email. “Further details on the new program are expected to be announced in the months to come.”
And in the face of a new law in Quebec aiming to outlaw non-government-approved online gambling websites, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre has taken the issue up with the CRTC while the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) has filed its opposition with the Quebec Superior Court.
A senior official within the official Opposition said that B.C. MP Dan Albas going to continue to oppose the controversial legislation.
In a July post on his website, Albas — the Opposition critic for inter-provincial trade and labour mobility who is better known for his Free the Beer campaign aiming to loosen trade barriers on alcohol — notes that he has “been the only Member of Parliament to raise this particular concern in the House of Commons and the response from the Liberal Government was that the government supports net neutrality. However it is unclear beyond that what efforts, if any, will be undertaken to protect the online rights of Canadians against these practices.”
In a Monday press conference interim Opposition leader Rona Ambrose said the Conservatives will be waiting to see what the government does with regard to telecommunications, “but obviously all of us have a cell phone and as you know the Conservative party, as Opposition we haven’t changed [our position on competition], and will continue to be the voice of consumer.”
In addition to wrapping up consultation on the rural broadband program, Bains also spent the summer collecting feedback on the government’s proposed Innovation Agenda, which included a question-and-answer session at Twitter Inc.’s Toronto office.
Over the summer, Public Safety Canada launched its consultation process for a cyber security review. That consultation wraps up at the beginning of December, while the Innovation Agenda feedback will get rolled into Budget 2017 submissions.
On Tuesday, the public consultation phase of Heritage Canada’s review of Canadian content in a digital world also rolled out, with a wrap-up date of Nov. 25. That process will be comprehensive—potentially affecting the broadcasting, telecom and CRTC acts, Canadian content rules and more—and is the first review of its kind in decades.
Though politicians were out of the capital region over the summer break, some industry players were busy shoring up plans for the fall.
“We met a lot of MPs between January and June and we were introducing [ourselves to] them, letting them know about the industry, who we are, what our members do, who are members are and what the association does for its members and for Canadians,” Kurt Eby, CWTA’s director of regulatory affairs and government relations, said in a phone interview. “We’ll focus more on ‘here are the three or four things we think would really help our members empower more Canadians to use wireless to do more everything,’ because people use wireless for everything.”
Last month, the CWTA submitted those areas of focus as part of the House of Commons’ finance committee’s 2017 pre-budget consultation process.
The association is again pushing for changes to the tax system to increase the capital cost allowance rate that businesses can claim for depreciable expenses on telecommunications equipment.
CWTA will also be advocating for “taxation parity among all suppliers of digital goods to Canadians,” the submission said.
Citing Conference Board of Canada research, the association said mobile video is expected to account for more than three-quarters of mobile traffic by 2020 and that the current GST and HST framework means “Canadian providers of digital products and services will continue to be burdened by an up to 15% price disadvantage compared to their foreign competitors.”
But adding a tax to subscriptions to services such as Netflix Inc.’s over-the-top offering may be a non-starter.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Tuesday, the heritage minister said that the Liberals were honouring what they said during the election campaign, that they wouldn’t have a Netflix tax, according to a transcript of her response. Joly has previously said that taxes and content requirements for foreign OTT services wouldn’t be included in the department’s review of Canadian content.
Eby said CWTA will also be pushing the government to look at renegotiating spectrum licence fees and talking to politicians about the future of 5G.
“It’s not really just an evolution of technology, it’s going to be a revolution in terms of the amount of connections within any given cell and the low latency and the high bandwidth up into the many gigs per second in terms of speed and what it’s going to enable for smart cities, smart grids, autonomous vehicles,” Eby said. “It’s going to be everywhere.”