Telecom Panel report gets mixed reaction from CIPPIC

NEWS RELEASE: 22 March 2006, Ottawa, ON

Telecom Panel report gets mixed reaction from CIPPIC

A three-person panel appointed by the Minister of Industry released its report today, recommending large-scale deregulation of the telecommunications market. The Panel recommended that regulations be retained only where market forces cannot achieve policy goals within a reasonable time, and where the benefits of such regulation outweigh the costs. It also proposed a number of new initiatives, including a comprehensive federal program to deploy broadband service in all remaining unserved areas of the country, and a new Telecommunications Consumer Agency to resolve consumer complaints against telecom service providers.

Consumer advocates and public interest groups gave the thumbs-up to some recommendations, but expressed serious concerns about others.

"There are a number of good proposals in this report", said Philippa Lawson, Executive Director of the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa. "We are especially pleased with the recommendation for a statutory right to access publicly available content on the Internet, given the potential for ISPs to limit user access to certain sites for self-interested purposes." TELUS was widely criticized last year for blocking access to a website critical of the company. "However, this recommendation does not go far enough toward ensuring network neutrality, since ISPs could still offer different levels of Internet access depending on ability and willingness to pay. We need additional rules prohibiting 'access-tiering'", she added.

Lawson also praised the Panel's recommendations for a comprehensive federal plan to deploy broadband services in all remaining unserved areas of the country. "This is an area where government support is clearly needed", said Lawson. "And the Panel recognized the importance of close cooperation with the communities themselves, who are best placed to define their access needs. However, we are disappointed with the absence of any recommendation to support ongoing access and training in those communities."

Lawson was highly critical of the Panel's proposals to do away with regulations that currently protect consumers against a variety of unfair practices in the telecom market. "If these proposals are adopted, telecom consumers will be left at the mercy of market forces, with no effective recourse against abusive industry practices such as hidden fees, misleading bills, excessive late payment fees and other after-the-fact charges, and disconnection of basic local phone service for non-payment of toll charges. Consumers would no longer have a right to a refund of charges for unauthorized 900 calls the first time it happens. You can expect to see telephone companies start charging for print directories, and even for printed bills."

"The Panel seems to be completely unaware of the significant role that the CRTC currently plays in holding the industry to basic standards of fair play when it comes to ordinary consumers", said Lawson. "It's not enough to ensure affordable access; consumers need protection from a variety of unfair practices specific to this industry. Other than the CRTC, there is no consumer protection agency with a mandate over the telecom industry", she added.

On the Panel's proposal for a new Telecommunications Consumer Agency, Lawson was circumspect. "This is something that consumer advocates have been calling for, but it's not clear how effective the Panel's proposed agency will be, especially if we do away with the ground-rules for fair play. The proposed agency could be effective in resolving certain individual consumer complaints, but would have no powers to change systemic unfair practices, which are the real threat to consumers", said Lawson. "It's also unclear to me how an agency that is funded by and reports to the industry can have any real clout when it comes to abusive practices that are industry-wide."

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Contact:

Philippa Lawson


See also: CBC: Ottawa urged to ease the way to deregulation in telecoms sector