What a Conservative majority means for tech & telecom

03 May

Well, that certainly was an exciting election! Not many people expected a Conservative majority to emerge and even fewer saw the NDP forming the official opposition. I’ll save the general political punditry for the… er… political pundits, but I can add some thoughts on what this might mean for tech, science and telecom in Canada over the next four years.

Generally speaking, a Conservative majority is not likely to be a good thing in those areas. When the election was called, I gave the Conservatives failing grades for their policies on the internet, foreign ownership and science in general while giving them barely passing grades on copyright and deregulation. I also gave them a decent mark for their treatment of wireless. For an explanation of those grades, I’d suggest checking out that post from back in March.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will doubtlessly take the majority as an endorsement of his government’s overall policies, and as well he should. Like it or not, the people have spoken. As such, it’ll be more of the same - if not more so.

During the election, a few other issues came up. First, Industry Minister Tony Clement indicated he is not at all in favour of structural separation - or the breaking up of telecom companies into network-owning and retail segments. That idea, which is gaining popularity among the public, is not likely to see the light of day until at least the next election. That’s too bad because if Canada is ever going to do it, it’s going to be a long process. The discussion needs to start happening now.

Secondly, the issue of lawful access came up. Harper promised to pass a bill within the first 100 days of Parliament that will allow police to get internet users’ personal information without a warrant. To say that’s concerning would be an understatement. The bright side is, it’s so egregious it’s very unlikely to pass  easily. I’m sure University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, who is an expert on such issues, will have a thorough dissection on his blog poste haste (I’ll link to it when he does). I’ll write more about it too once I’ve given it some decent thought.

Thirdly, just before the election the lovely folks at Wikileaks released some cables that detailed U.S. lobbyist efforts to influence copyright law. The cables confirmed pretty much everything Geist has been saying for the past few years about how the Conservatives have simply been trying to ramrod a U.S.-written law down Canadians’ throats. The government’s previous copyright reform law, Bill C-32, is going to be resurrected - the Conservatives promised as much in their platform - but it’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out. The government may be emboldened by its majority and simply try to push it through, but I suspect the public’s opposition to it - which was already palpable - is only going to increase as well as a result of the new evidence. Copyright reform may very well ignite all-out revolt before this year is out.

From there, it’s on to new business. Clement, who was re-elected, kept promising before the election that a long-awaited “digital strategy” will be released this spring. Hopefully that still happens and while I don’t expect it to be good, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt before passing judgement.

With any luck, Clement will remain Minister of Industry. He may not seem to know how to fix many of Canada’s tech and telecom problems, but he has at least shown a solid awareness of their existence, which is much more than can be said about a good many MPs from all parties. At the very least, we can expect some sort of action on the whole usage-based billing issue, which Clement very vocally opposed.

The big bonus of a Conservative majority - and it’s a huge one - is that the government may finally move to get rid of those foreign ownership limits on telecom companies. With the fate of Wind Mobile continuing to dangle in the wind (pun intended), this is likely to be addressed quickly. All the work has been done and the hearings have been held - the trigger simply needs to be pulled.

The smart money is that the government will lift ownership restrictions on small companies, so foreigners can own the likes of Wind or start up new businesses, with the shackles coming off the big guys in a few years time. As I’ve written many, many times, this is a painfully overdue step that needs to be taken and it could ultimately be the most important thing the government can do as far as tech and telecom are concerned. In the end, Harper haters may ironically end up owing him a big debt of gratitude - his government may change the rules that eventually lead to companies such as Bell and Rogers ceasing to exist.

While the Conservatives’ performance on tech, science and telecom issues up till now has been wanting for the most part, some of that may very well have been because of the caution that a minority government must operate under. There is consequently a lot of room for improvement - let’s hope we see it.


14 Responses to What a Conservative majority means for tech & telecom

  1. Hub

    May 3, 2011 at 12:13 am

    You think he is gonna do something about UBB? I’d like to be wrong, but I’m almost certain he will just let it go. And Bell will implement it. He only took it last minute as an election issue, sort of.

    As for the ownership, even that I’m not sure. It is likely the Canadian monopolies are funnelling more money than ever into lobbying.

    To me it looks like a very dark future.

    • petenowak2000

      May 3, 2011 at 12:18 am

      It’s not correct to think the companies oppose foreign ownership. Without those limits they can sell to the highest bidder, which means big profits for shareholders and executives. Many of the companies are likely in favour of it.

  2. FedupCanuck

    May 3, 2011 at 12:39 am

    If you think Canadian Internet is bad now just wait. I predict #UBB will sail through without any opposition from the Conservatives. Copyright amendment that died twice before on the order paper will pass. The amendment will be written by the MPAA and RIAA. Sad day for Canada.

  3. ERic

    May 3, 2011 at 1:04 am

    If telus and Rogers are replaced with the quality networks enjoyed in the US, we won’t be thankful.

  4. Daniel Friesen

    May 3, 2011 at 1:38 am

    If Clement is against functional separation, I wonder what his opinion on the community broadband co-op idea some people are advocating in the US. Where a co-op in an area could wire up fiber-to-the-premises and sell access fairly to ISPs.

    If a number of cities with fiber run by the people living there popped up, without the need to worry about the expense of installing the network or the incumbents making life hard for them, I could see new small ISPs like Teksavvy and Yak popping up and jump starting competition and innovation. As a bonus the extreme increase in speed and larger caps could potentially entice a lot of customers. Perhaps going off into dream land here, but one could hope for a real symmetrical gigabit fiber.

    I’d love to have the possibilities of better video chat, slingbox and personal music streaming type patterns, and the ability to back up stuff remotely to a machine inside the house the other half of my family lives and vice versa, opened up.

    • Serge

      May 3, 2011 at 11:58 am

      Who cares what Clement’s opinion is? Community broadband co-ops aren’t the government’s job. They’re the people’s. Has anyone actually tried this? For that matter, why don’t the American companies and smaller Canadian ones that compete with the telecom and the cable incumbents in residential, like Primus, Teksavvy, or Yak, all get together and do their own fibre co-op? And, no, nothing in foreign ownership rules would create a stumbling block, if Americans wanted to bankroll it — all they’d have to do would be sign up as non-controlling investors in the co-op, and as anchor customers for the fibre being built by the co-ops. It’s fine to complain endlessly about regulatory beefs, but there’s been nothing stopping communities or companies from getting up off their duffs and doing something like this. Maybe it’s time they did.

  5. George

    May 3, 2011 at 4:18 am

    It’s foolish to think that opening telecoms up to foreign investment will do anything but exacerbate the issues we currently face unless we first _massively_ reform the CRTC and the entire regulatory clusterfuck they’ve presided over for at least the last 5 years. And that is not going to happen with Harper in charge.

    The principle the CRTC needs to get through their thick, corrupt and incompetent skulls is that the telecoms infrastructure connecting Canadian homes needs to be fully open to COST BASED wholesale competition, full stop with no BS, no UBB double-dipping profit gouge and no epic 4 year delays, regardless of who owns that infrastructure. But again, that’s NEVER going to happen with an evil weasel like Harper in charge.

    EPIC FAIL, Canada. We have never sucked ass more than now.

  6. Gord Campbell

    May 3, 2011 at 11:49 am

    One bright spark in all of this mess is that Charlie Angus was handily re-elected last night. He definitely gets it and doesn’t shrink from holding the Govt’s feet to the fire.

  7. vandelay

    May 3, 2011 at 11:54 am

    This post seems to indicate that you are in favour of both regulation and deregulation. Care to delineate where, when and why you are in favour of either, or to point me to a post in which you have made such an explanation?

    • petenowak2000

      May 3, 2011 at 4:06 pm

      I’m in favour of minimal but effective regulation. The problem we’ve had is that telecom has been largely deregulated in all but the most important way: namely, that we still have rules that keep foreign companies out. I also like the idea of structural separation because it’s a nice blend of simple regulation and letting the market work on its own.

  8. Sergei

    May 3, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Conservative Majority or Liberal Majority - not much will change. Average Canadian is very patriotic about his/her Canadian content in the form of NFB sponsored movies of the past and grilled chicken channels of today. As the result of this patriotism, citizenry will oppose removal of restriction on foreign ownership or CanCon-Tax-Free over the top providers like Netflix. Unless majority of Canadians realize that we are living in the “digital ghetto” as Jesse Brown once put it, nothing will change as they will trust that we have best, fastest internet and that it is criminal digital content thieves that use all the traffic.

    There are more sides to the Digital Economy coin that get mentioned, Canadian Internet will never get the level of development it in the USA unless Internet is tax free. Pure Digital services should be tax free, to encourage their development and consumption. Out of province purchases should be tax free (and a side-effect Canada Post can become profitable).

    I really like idea of community based internet infrastructure or even internet as utility where on top of a fixed maintenance cost you pay real per Gb cost. However in some underdeveloped communities where majority of residents are either elderly or low level blu-colar workers prospects of getting descent internet will be very dim. Those people are the easiest to rip off since they have no clue how much things might cost in reality and they are the tastiest food for predators like Rogers and Bell, as a gravy most of them don’t understand (or look at) their bills anyway.

  9. Manuel Schulte

    May 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    “Prime Minister Stephen Harper will doubtlessly take the majority as an endorsement of his government’s overall policies, and as well he should. Like it or not, the people have spoken.”

    Indeed the people have spoken - and over 60% voted against his government and his policies. He has nothing resembling a popular mandate or endorsement for ANY of his policies.

    • petenowak2000

      May 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm

      Alas, that’s not the way our system works. The same is usually true no matter which party gets elected.

      • Manuel Schulte

        May 4, 2011 at 5:59 am

        Just because our system works by allowing a minority of voters to determine which party gets the majority in parliament it does not mean that the government “should” view its majority status as an “endorsement” of its policies. Harper is way too smart to think that he has a popular endorsement. Perhaps he’ll say he does - but there is no way he believes it. The Conservatives play strategy exceedingly well. They know darn well that most of Canada loathes their policies. They have done everything they can to try and brand themselves with a warm and fuzzy image that goes in direct contrast to what they actually stand for. With the exception of their core supporters and their bigwig corporate buddies, what people think is an obstacle to be overcome - not something to be considered. They wanted as much unchecked power as they could get and they did what was needed to obtain it. We should in no way be happy about that and in no way should we congratulate them on the fact that they got what they wanted. Our society is going to suffer the consequences.


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