New CRTC chair takes aim at Canada’s high internet prices

Canada’s internet prices are notoriously among the highest in the world, and the new chairman of the country’s telecoms regulator wants to see if he can change that.

“I’m very focused on the competition. I’m focused on prices,” said Vicki Eatrides, who began a five-year term at the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission on January 5.

It’s only been two weeks, but he plans to move fast.

Eatrides said in an interview with the Star on Friday that it intends to come out with a fix for the beleaguered wholesale internet market in the near future: “I would say, ‘stay tuned.’

The CRTC requires large telecom operators like Rogers and Bell to sell access to their networks to smaller players at regulated rates. Independent providers then sell internet and TV services to their retail customers.

The system is designed to create more consumer choice and encourage more competitive pricing practices, but a series of CRTC decisions in recent years have favored the big operators. Now, independent ISPs say they are struggling to stay in business and some are selling their companies to players like Bell and Quebecor.

Eatrides takes over as CRTC chairman from Ian Scott, who is deeply unpopular with consumer advocates and small telecom operators for favoring the big companies in some of these important decisions.

“We found that the high-speed access framework wasn’t having the positive impact we wanted,” Eatrides said, referring to the wholesale internet marketplace. He added that in the coming “months — not years, but soon — we plan to come out with something to revise this model because we know we need a better model.”

“When you look at the prices, even internationally … it’s not good,” Eatrides said, pointing to the findings of a report Wall Communications Inc. prepared for the federal government. “Internet prices — and wireless, frankly, even though wireless has come down a little bit — we’re in the top three for the highest prices in the world.”

The latest Wall report found that between 2019 and 2021, national average home internet prices increased in every basket except for the category of relatively low-speed plans.

Canadian internet prices in 2021 were also higher than international comparisons, or domestic prices in the other G7 countries (France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US) plus Australia.

On the wireless front, the CRTC last year introduced new rules for a system that would require large mobile carriers to sell network access to certain smaller telcos. Eatrides said he wanted to make sure the regime was working as it should.

“I would like to know where the big providers are in terms of negotiations with regional providers,” he said.

Earlier this week, independent ISP TekSavvy filed a filing alleging that the deal between Rogers and Videotron (a side deal to Rogers’ $26 billion takeover of Shaw) violated CRTC rules. Eatrides said it was too early to comment on the fate of this 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 the tribunal’s decision to block the merger. The companies still hope to close the deal by the end of January.

“Other than (the TekSavvy application), we’re obviously watching very closely,” he said of the Rogers-Shaw merger overall. “I want people to ask, ‘What has the CRTC done for me?’ so they can say. And then you have good answers, whether it’s lower prices or more choice and (network) stability and more access to Canadian content.

He added that he recognizes the need to balance these priorities with policies that encourage companies to invest in networking and spend on innovation.

The CRTC is also expected to be reviewed this year as two government bills – one to force online giants to pay for news and another on new broadcasting rules for streaming platforms – could give the regulator new powers.

Eatrides said how he plans to approach the new laws and obligations: “Whatever Parliament gives us, we will give and then we will implement.” “In some ways, I think it’s a little early to tell.”

Eatrides has extensive experience in competition law and policy, having held senior positions at the Competition Bureau for more than ten years, most recently as an assistant deputy minister at Canada’s federal department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Earlier in his career, he practiced law in the regulatory group at Stikeman Elliott LLP in Ottawa and also taught courses in competition law at Queen’s University.

Eatrides is the second woman to chair the CRTC since Quebec broadcaster Françoise Bertrand took the post in the late 1990s.

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