Jean-Pierre Blais has little patience for nostalgia as he nears the end of his five-year term at the helm of Canada’s telecommunications and broadcast regulator.
The chairman, known for his authoritative leadership style, is so driven to complete his agenda at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission before his contract expires in June that he’s loath to spend too much time looking back, let alone acknowledge his tenure could be wrapping up in the first place.
“I still have lots to do, that’s why I don’t want to say I’m at the end of the term,” Blais said in a wide-ranging interview at his Ottawa office, where he hinted his next big ruling — a decision on basic Internet service — will be his most disruptive yet.
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There’s a slim chance his term could be extended, but he’s setting his remaining plans in motion over the next six months, a push that comes amid increased uncertainty over the future of leadership at the CRTC and of the institution itself.
Five of the CRTC’s 13 commissioner positions are vacant after a turbulent year: one commissioner quit, two dealt with workplace harassment allegations and, in what is believed to be a CRTC first, one was fired. Another three seats, including the chairman’s, are scheduled to empty by next summer, leaving a potential leadership void at the commission whose decisions touch every single Canadian who uses a mobile phone, Internet access, television or landline.
The Department of Canadian Heritage, which is in charge of the CRTC, has yet to even start the process of replacing Blais. Earlier this month, it replaced the CRTC’s vice-chair of broadcasting, albeit on a six-month term, so it could move forward with business in Quebec that has been paralyzed for nearly a year, because the CRTC only had two francophone commissioners when policy requires three.
Meantime, the CRTC’s mandate is being scrutinized as part of the heritage ministry’s overhaul of its cultural policy for the digital age.
Despite the commission’s efforts to adapt to the shift to broadband from broadcast, some think tanks have recently called on the government to claw back the CRTC’s powers, particularly regarding Canadian content requirements for broadcasters, and hand over control to the Competition Bureau and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada.
“The CRTC’s regulatory decisions have often become inconsistent, heavy-handed, and counterproductive,” according to the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, echoing its counterparts that believe regulating television makes little sense in the Netflix era. Conservative leadership hopeful Maxime Bernier recently called the CRTC a “playground for bureaucrats” that should be phased out.
Others just want the Liberals to set a clear policy that the CRTC and business alike can follow.
Brice Scheschuk, co-founder of Wind Mobile and chief executive of Globalive Capital Inc., said the important thing isn’t whether the CRTC or a different agency enforces the rules, but that a strong, holistic policy for the telecom system is outlined in the first place.
“It has to be done with strength and fortitude. There are no half-assed measures here,” he said.
The Liberals won’t evaluate options for the CRTC’s mandate until the Canadian Heritage’s consultation ends this month. But when it comes to leadership, cabinet has been slow to fill appointed positions in all agencies after revamping the selection process to search for more diverse candidates. It was this desire for a wider breadth of candidates that stalled the hiring process for the CRTC’s vice-chair role. (All current CRTC commissioners are white and three are women.)
While the Liberals get their house in order, Blais has found himself in the spotlight due to his laser focus on consumer choice at the expense of industry giants, as well as a simmering conflict with former CRTC commissioner Raj Shoan, who was ultimately fired by cabinet after being investigated for workplace harassment. The battle resulted in four lawsuits, three of which are in various states of appeal, and one was pulled.
He’s rankled big business, creative types and even some within the CRTC, yet he makes no apologies for what he sees as rebalancing the institution in favour of the public.
“If this was being a disruptive showman, so be it,” Blais told an industry audience at a conference in November.
Some industry players who would only speak on background say the pendulum has swung too far against big business under his reign, particularly when it comes to wholesale rates for fast fibre Internet services. They say this could dampen investment in crucial infrastructure as more devices demand faster connections. Blais disagrees that he’s gone too far.
“There was regulatory capture in this institution for too many years,” he said. He’s proud that he and his team have “broken the cycle” of being captive to the industry’s whims after what he said were too many years of a revolving door between the industry and the regulator.
“If I manage to leave that as a legacy, a lasting one the next chair would carry forward, I think that would be good.”
Consumer advocates agree. Public Interest Advocacy Centre executive director John Lawford said the CRTC’s direction has been “uniformly positive” for consumers under Blais’ direction.
“He’s been the best thing for Canadian consumers in telecom and broadcasting ever — but they may not know about how hard it is to move those areas in a consumer direction and what he is up against,” Lawford said.
Blais’ populist policies, specifically those that try to promote smaller competitors and appease Canadians irked with their wireless and cable bills, align quite closely with the Liberal government’s ideals based on statements prioritizing affordable broadband and competition from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains.
Coupled with Blais’ reportedly positive rapport with Heritage Minister Melanie Joly, one camp believes he has a shot at another two years in the role even though the Conservatives appointed him. It’s also one of the best-paying jobs in Ottawa with the salary topping out at $312,000 annually.
Yet only one chair’s term has been extended in the CRTC’s nearly 50-year history. Blais may be respected across the board for delivering on his promises to put Canadians ahead of industry, but his term has been clouded by the feud with Shoan, who has accused the commission of “underlying racism.”
A judge ruled this summer that Blais unfairly acted as witness and decision maker in the investigation into Shoan — a decision the attorney general has appealed. Another commissioner, Linda Vennard, was investigated for harassment, but she said the allegations are unsubstantiated.
Blais frowns when the Shoan lawsuits are mentioned, saying little except that he has zero tolerance for harassment. He’s also defensive about his decisions that didn’t work out as well as consumer groups hoped: wireless prices increased when contracts were shortened to two years from three and there was little initial uptake of skinny TV packages.
But he’s happy to discuss the CRTC’s mandate and make-up going forward. He said people calling for it to hand power to the Competition Bureau forget that telecoms have common carrier obligations that mean they must act in the public interest.
“Those that advocate the competition law deals with everything are missing out that there’s a broader public interest,” Blais said, citing as an example the lack of a business case for video relay services, which enable people with hearing disabilities to use phones. He also sees a role for a specialized regulator to parse through topics such as differential pricing, an Internet data issue that may seem technocratic, but can impact consumers’ lives in a big way.
On the broadcast side, he believes it’s necessary for the CRTC to force broadcasters to allocate money to programming such as local news until there’s a viable alternative. He recognizes the industry is shifting away from traditional television
“The technology has changed and the way people interact with the technology has changed. Let’s just accept that,” Blais said.
He figures the commission could function well with only five to seven commissioners, as is done in the U.S. and Australia, given that 90 per cent of telecom services are unregulated and telecom makes up two-thirds of the CRTC’s purview. He recognizes, however, that it would be hard to capture diversity and perspectives from across the country with fewer positions.
Blais won’t outright say whether he wants to keep his job, but the 56-year-old openly states he’s not ready to retire and feels he has more to contribute. He’s on leave from an assistant deputy minister job that he will go back to “if there’s nothing else,” he said.
Clearly passionate about the public service in general and the CRTC specifically, he excitedly describes an academic presentation at a hearing on Internet data pricing as one that left his “neurons triggering at all speeds.”
He’s also holding hearings for broadcast licence renewals, next-generation 911 and a review of the wireless code. And he expects the CRTC’s decision on basic Internet access — advocates pushed the commission to raise the current goal of 5 Mbps download speeds across the country — will be the “cornerstone” of the institution’s future.
“That will be a significant decision that will have repercussions at least for 10 years, if not more,” Blais said.
The decision could include a funding model that would help extend broadband to rural and remote communities.
Blais, whose office is decorated with polar bear carvings from his travels in Canada’s north, believes governments have a role in building digital roads in the same way they build bridges and railroads. Australia, he points out, spent $40 billion on a national broadband scheme to get Internet to the Outback since it’s part of their identity.
“Even if you’re in these very small remote communities in Nunavut, the expectations of those Canadians are the same as those anywhere in the country,” he said, noting a strong connection can be used for education, news and health.
“Too many people think of connectivity in terms of entertainment,” he said. “It’s that, for sure, but it’s much more than that.”