Canada’s internet prices are notorious for being among the highest in the world and the new chair of the country’s telecom regulator wants to see if she can change that.
“I’m very focused on competition. I’m focused on pricing,” said Vicky Eatrides, who began a five-year term at the helm of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Jan. 5.
It’s only been two weeks, but she plans to move fast.
Eatrides told the Star in an interview Friday that she intends to come out with a fix for the beleaguered wholesale internet market in the near future: “What I would say is ‘stay tuned.’”
The CRTC requires large telecom operators like Rogers and Bell to sell access to their networks to smaller players at regulated rates. The independent providers then sell internet and television service to their own retail customers.
The system is meant to create more consumer choice and encourage more competitive pricing practices, but in recent years, a series of CRTC rulings have favoured the large operators. Now, independent internet providers say they are struggling to remain in business and some have sold their companies to players like Bell and Quebecor.
Eatrides is taking over as CRTC chair from Ian Scott, who became deeply unpopular with consumer advocates and small telecom operators in part for appearing to favour large companies in some of those crucial decisions.
“We have seen that the high-speed access framework is not having the positive intended effect that we want it to have,” Eatrides told the Star, referring to the wholesale internet market. She added that in the coming “months — not years, soon — we plan to go out with something to revisit that model, because we know that we need a better model.”
“When you look at the pricing, even internationally…. it’s not good,” Eatrides said pointing to the findings of a report by Wall Communications Inc. prepared for the federal government. “Internet prices — and wireless, quite frankly, even though wireless may be coming down a bit — we’re kind of in the top three in terms of highest prices in the world.”
The most recent Wall report found that between 2019 and 2021, average home internet prices across the country increased in every basket except for one, a category of relatively low-speed plans.
Canadian internet prices in 2021 were also either higher than the international comparisons or close to the most expensive in several of the speed tiers in the study, which compared domestic prices to those in the other G7 countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.) plus Australia.
On the wireless front, the CRTC came out with new rules last year for a system that requires the large cellular carriers to sell network access to certain smaller telecoms. Eatrides said she wants to make sure that regime is running as it should.
“I would like to know where the large providers are in terms of negotiations with the regional providers,” she said.
Earlier this week, independent internet provider TekSavvy filed an application claiming that an agreement between Rogers and Videotron (a side deal to the $26-billion Rogers takeover of Shaw) violates CRTC rules. Eatrides said it was too early to comment on the fate of that application, which could throw another wrench in the timing of the proposed transactions.
On Tuesday, the Federal Court of Appeal will hear the Competition Bureau’s appeal of a tribunal ruling last month that refused to block the merger. The companies still hope to close the deal by the end of January.
“Aside from that (the TekSavvy application), we’re watching very closely, obviously,” she said, of the Rogers-Shaw merger in general. “I want people to be able to say, ‘What has the CRTC done for me?’ And then have good answers to that, whether that’s lower prices or more choice and (network) resilience and more access to Canadian content.”
She added that she recognizes the need to balance those priorities with policies that encourage companies to invest in building networks and spend money on innovation.
The CRTC is also expected to face scrutiny this year as two government bills — one on forcing online giants to pay for news and another on new broadcast rules for streaming platforms — could give the regulator new powers.
“Parliament will give us what they give us and then we’ll implement (it),” Eatrides said of how she plans to approach the new laws and responsibilities. “In some ways, I think it’s a little bit early to say.”
Eatrides has a long background in competition law and policy, having spent more than a decade in increasingly senior roles with the Competition Bureau before a more recent stint as assistant deputy minister at the federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.
Earlier in her career she practised law in the regulatory group at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Ottawa and she also taught courses in competition law at Queen’s University.
Eatrides is the second woman to chair the CRTC after Quebec broadcast executive Françoise Bertrand held the role in the late 1990s.
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