Last week, the Supreme Court tossed out Big Telecom's appeal of a CRTC wholesale internet rates ruling. At first glance, this looks like a victory for consumers and smaller internet service providers.
But in terms of securing more affordable prices, nothing was won. Big Telecom's high wholesale rates – which independent ISPs pay to access big companies' networks and which determine the prices nearly every Canadian pays for internet service as a result — are still in place. That means everyone is continuing to shell out more than they should.
(It's why TekSavvy is taking part in a national Day of Action for affordable internet on March 16. More on that below.)
The entire case is nearly six years old. It began as a routine process, but took a "very disturbing" turn when the CRTC discovered the big companies had simply ignored its rules and vastly inflated their wholesale rates. The regulator adjusted them in 2016, before setting lower, final rates in a landmark August 2019 decision with the promise that they would deliver "more affordable prices for consumers."
Outraged, Big Telecom immediately appealed the decision to the federal government, the courts and the CRTC itself. Cabinet rejected the appeal in August 2020, followed a month later by the Federal Court of Appeal, which ruled their claims had "dubious merit." After last week’s Supreme Court denial, it now all comes down to one last pending appeal to the CRTC, which the regulator has been mulling in silence for more than a year.
Now, there is no excuse for any further delay. The CRTC has nothing more to wait on or consider, unless it wants to also count more recent disturbing facts showing how Big Telecom treats Canadians like a bottomless ATM. To wit:
- Bell, Rogers and Telus have between them taken nearly a quarter billion taxpayer dollars in federal labour subsidies meant to support struggling businesses during the pandemic despite generating massive profits, paying out billions in dividends and hording even more in cash. Bell and Rogers then each laid off hundreds of workers anyway — in some cases at Bell, via robocall. Instead of repaying this unnecessary aid, as profitable companies in other countries are doing, Big Telecom executives wondered, "What's the problem?" and lashed out at critics, accusing a non-profit group of "virulent hypocrisy."
- Bell used taxpayer funds to connect 100 well-to-do lake-front cottages in rural Quebec with fibre broadband, including one property owned by company chief executive Mirko Bibic. To get to this remote, wealthy enclave, the company skipped past less-affluent communities nearby living with shoddy internet connections.
- Canada's largest city recently decided to build its own municipal broadband network because Bell and Rogers services are unaffordable to a significant portion of residents.
- Locked-down consumers who already pay among the highest prices in the world have been hit with price hike after price hike after price hike during the pandemic, while smaller ISPs are forced to do the same due to unchecked anti-competitive abuse, including being overcharged millions each month due to the inflated rates.
Which way internet bills go in Canada is now entirely up to the CRTC – will they continue to rise with no end in sight, further engorging these companies and their shareholders, or will consumers finally get some relief and competitive choice at a time when they sorely need it?
It’s a seemingly easy decision. The regulator can affirm its own principled ruling and deliver more affordable pricing or it can choose to ignore its own "very disturbing" findings and buy into "dubious" claims from massively profitable companies that are killing competition, gobbling tax dollars and gouging consumers with impunity.
With the Supreme Court appeal out of the way, every day that the CRTC doesn’t make the right choice suggests it might be making the wrong one.
This is why TekSavvy is joining a coalition of consumer advocates, civil society and social justice groups, policy experts and activists in the upcoming national Day of Action on March 16.
Participants are collectively fed up and are speaking out in a big way because, court rulings to the contrary, consumers and competitive service providers aren’t winning anything right now. Thanks to inaction by governments and regulators, Big Telecom is winning it all.