New CRTC Chair is ‘Focused on Competition’ for Wholesale Internet Market

New Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) chair and CEO Vicky Eatrides sat down for an interview with The Toronto Star on Friday where she detailed some of what we can expect from her term in the near future.

“I’m very focused on competition. I’m focused on pricing,” said Eatrides, who started her five-year term atop the CRTC on January 5. She replaces Ian Scott, who had built a bit of a reputation for favouring larger telecommunications companies over smaller ones and whose term one telecom expert recently called “disastrous for public confidence” in the regulator.

Residential internet pricing in Canada isn’t notably going down, despite the CRTC putting in place a framework that requires national players to let smaller operators lease access to their networks at regulated wholesale rates. Independent providers then sell internet and television service to their own customers.

The CRTC intended for this system to encourage competition and lower pricing. However, wholesale internet rates paid by smaller telcos have gone up since the watchdog reversed its own 2019 decision to lower them significantly, ultimately leading to higher internet bills for end users.

Independent internet service providers (ISPs) like TekSavvy also argue that the hiked rates are making it harder for them to compete, with some even having sold out to larger players like Quebecor and Bell.

Eatrades wants to fix this state of affairs. “We have seen that the high-speed access framework is not having the positive intended effect that we want it to have,” she told The Star. 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.”

The new CRTC chair went on to cite a recent government-commissioned study from Wall Communications that showed internet pricing in Canada has consistently and considerably gone up since the regulator failed to lower wholesale internet rates in 2019.

“When you look at the pricing, even internationally… it’s not good,” Eatrides noted. “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.”

Eatrides also committed to working on wireless pricing. “I would like to know where the large providers are in terms of negotiations with the regional providers,” she said, referring to the CRTC’s establishment of mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) rules last year.

Earlier this week, TekSavvy petitioned the CRTC to investigate the “unlawful,” lower-than-tariff internet rates Rogers has agreed to offer Quebecor’s Vidéotron as part of the Freedom Mobile that’s bundled with the telecom giant’s proposed $26 billion takeover of Shaw Communications.

The independent ISP argued that the CRTC, which already greenlit the Rogers-Shaw merger last year under Scott, needs to rule on the Rogers-Vidéotron agreement before the merger can proceed. Eatrides said it was too early to comment on the fate of TekSavvy’s application, which could potentially delay — if not prevent — the proposed transactions.

“Aside from that (the TekSavvy application), we’re watching very closely, obviously,” she said of the Rogers-Shaw merger.

“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.”

The CRTC may also gain a load of new responsibilities under Eatrides as Bills C-11 and C-18, controversial proposals that will give the regulator new powers, make their way through the government.