Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

Feature by Tammy McCausland || Feb 25, 2009

The job of regulating Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications sectors falls to the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), an independent public authority created in 1968. Over its history, the CRTC has made numerous rulings regarding regulation and has addressed the impact of technologies on the industries over which it serves as guardian. This article begins with a brief overview of the CRTC as a regulatory body. It then provides a history of broadcasting and telecommunications in Canada and their regulation, first by the federal government and then the CRTC. It outlines the mandate and structure of the CRTC, and then discusses issues and debates surrounding the efficacy of the CRTC overall.

Overview of the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

An introduction to the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

History of Canadian Broadcasting and Telecommunications

Evolution of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in Canada

Government Regulation of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in Canada

The role of government in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries

The Mandate, Structure and Accountability of the CRTC

The General Operations of the CRTC

The CRTC and Canadian Content Rules

CRTC quotas and Canadian cultural identity

Issues and Debates Surrounding the CRTC

Legitimacy of the CRTC and the proposed need for regulation

Sources and Links to More Information

Links to article sources and more information on this topic

Regulation of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in Canada

An introduction to the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is a federal regulatory body tasked to oversee the nation’s broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. Specifically, it was created as an independent agency by the federal government to regulate and supervise all aspects of the Canadian broadcasting system, and to regulate telecommunications common carriers and service providers that fall under federal jurisdiction (CRTC 2008).

Broadcasting is regulated, unlike other media such as print, because broadcast frequencies in Canada (also known as airwaves) are considered public domain. Initially, there were limited frequencies — compared to the possibility of an almost unlimited number of newspapers — so there was a need to regulate who had access to them. The rationale for creating a separate agency with its own authority but yet which is accountable to the government may also stem in part from the fact that Canada has a mixed broadcasting system with public, private and community elements. It may also be that at the time of its creation, the federal government felt an independent public authority could best uphold and ensure specific tenets of the Broadcasting Act. As well, given that a free (as opposed to government-run or government-censored) media is central to the functioning of democracy, it is important for the government to have an arm’s-length relationship with media companies.

While the CRTC oversees broadcasting and telecommunications, some aspects of these two sectors also fall under the responsibility of other federal government departments, such as Industry Canada (technical matters) and Heritage Canada (Canadian content), as well as the Competition Bureau, the Copyright Board and broadcasting standards organizations (Salter 2008). As such, the CRTC’s role as regulator is somewhat more complex than agencies overseeing other sectors. The CRTC has a great deal of discretion regarding how to interpret and apply its mandating legislation (Salter 2008).

Canada is not the only country with a federal regulator that oversees broadcasting and telecommunications. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has this role, while the United Kingdom has the Office of Communications (Ofcom) and Australia has the Australian Communications Authority (ACA).

History of Canadian Broadcasting and Telecommunications

Evolution of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in Canada

Radio was the earliest form of broadcasting in Canada. Guglielmo Marconi, the man who sent the first telegraph from Signal Hill in Newfoundland in 1901, is recognized as the inventor of radio. In 1919, Marconi began experimental broadcasts from his Montreal station XWA to amateur radio enthusiasts (called “hams”). The station made its first scheduled broadcast on May 20, 1920 (CBC, 2008): a musical program was relayed to the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa where the Royal Society of Canada was meeting. The Ottawa Citizen newspaper deemed it a “veritable miracle” (CBC, 2008).

The advent of television greatly expanded the scope of broadcasting. The 1950s was an exciting era with the creation of television stations, television programming and the first live coast-to-coast TV broadcast. Technological developments have advanced broadcasting, paving the way for the multi-channel universe, pay-per-view services, satellite radio and television, and the ability to watch and listen to programming using a computer.

Over the past century or so, Canada’s telecommunications sector has evolved from a monopoly into a sector with greater competition ― one in which telecommunications policy seeks to balance the interests of providers and the public. From 1880 to 1906, the provision of telephone service in Canada occurred in an unstructured environment. The federal government did establish limited jurisdiction in the telephone market as early as the 1880s, first by incorporating Bell Canada in 1880 and then by prohibiting Bell from raising its rates without the approval of the Governor in Council. While Bell Canada initially created networks across Canada, provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba created their own regional companies in 1907 and 1908. Further, Bell Canada sold its interests in Atlantic Canada to private investors. Independent local telephone companies also emerged in parts of Canada that were either underserved or not served by other providers. The number of carriers continued to grow and expand over time.

When the CRTC’s jurisdiction was expanded to include the regulation of telecommunications, in 1976, there were as many as 850 independents still operating. These independents have continued to be consolidated; currently, there are only 38 independent telephone companies remaining in Ontario and Quebec, and one in British Columbia.

Government Regulation of Broadcasting and Telecommunications in Canada

The role of government in the broadcasting and telecommunications industries

Initially, government regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications occurred separately. Each will be discussed in turn, followed by their merger under the structure of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Broadcasting Regulation

Since the early days of broadcasting, the Government of Canada has aimed to develop policies that keep pace with changing technology. In 1928, Prime Minister Robert Borden’s government created the first Royal Commission on Broadcasting to examine the state of broadcasting in Canada and to make recommendations regarding future administration, management, control and financing of the broadcasting system. The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act, Canada’s first broadcasting legislation, took effect in 1932. In 1958, a new broadcasting act established the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG) to regulate all Canadian broadcasting (CBC, 2008).

The existing Broadcasting Act was first created in 1968 and modified in 1991. Its main objective is to ensure all Canadians have access to wide array of quality Canadian programming. The Act consists of three sections: a broadcasting policy for Canada; the regulatory powers of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC); and operating procedures and policies for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, better known as the CBC (Media Awareness Network, 2008).

The Broadcasting Act was created to protect Canadian culture and strengthen the nation’s social, economic and political structures. The Act has two sets of goals: policy goals for the Canadian broadcasting system as a whole, and regulatory goals for the CRTC as regulator (Salter, 2008). The CRTC, through its policies and regulations, has worked to ensure the development and presence of Canadian content in our broadcasting system.

Section 3 of the Broadcasting Act lays out three important provisions: 1) radio frequencies are public property; 2) broadcast programming provides a public service essential to national identity and cultural sovereignty; and 3) the Canadian broadcasting system should provide a wide range of programming that reflects Canadian attitudes, opinions, ideas, values and artistic creativity by displaying Canadian talent in entertainment programming (Media Awareness Network, 2008).

The CRTC requires that Canadian radio and television broadcasters must air a certain percentage of content that is “originally Canadian,” and has established quotas to achieve this objective.

Telecommunications Regulation

Regulation of telecommunications in Canada predates that of broadcasting. The first regulatory framework was established in 1906. In 1906, and 1908, amendments to the Railway Act granted the Board of Railway Commissioners of Canada the authority to regulate phone and telegraph companies under federal jurisdiction (CRTC, 2008). The Board approved telephone rates, ordered the interconnection of telephone systems and installed lines along highways and in other public places. In 1985, the federal government established the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission Act.

Beginning in 1906, Canada entered its first phase of regulation, which was characterized by a monopoly and independent regulation of telephone companies pursuant to the Railway Act (Telecommunication Policy Review Panel, 2006). The Railway Act, which was first amended in 1906 to apply to telephone service, contained the main provisions regarding the regulation of telecommunications at the federal level in Canada. Telephone service was brought under the jurisdiction of the Board of Railway Commissioners, which was empowered to regulate all telephone tolls, contracts and agreements of those companies.

The Railway Act was overhauled in 1919 and then remained largely untouched until the Telecommunications Act was passed in 1993. This phase was predominantly one of monopolies. Although some competition in non-basic services appeared in the late 1970s, it was the passage of the Telecommunications Act in 1993 that required a more competitive structure of telecommunications services (Telecommunication Policy Review Panel, 2006). Even in a more competitive environment, regulatory oversight was required to ensure the transition from monopoly to non-monopoly and that connectivity and other public policy objectives were met.

Canada’s telephone companies evolved as a group of regional monopolies.

The Telecommunications Act did not replace the existing regulatory framework set out in the Railway Act. It supplemented these core provisions with a set of explicit policy objectives and new powers aimed at helping the CRTC regulate the new hybrid industry structure and manage the transition from rate-of-return monopoly regulation to a more flexible regulatory format. The policy objectives of the Telecommunications Act endorse the principle of universal service while, at the same time, fostering reliance on market forces for the provision of telecommunications servicers, and enhancing the efficiency and competitiveness of Canadian telecommunications. Telecommunications policy in Canada has focused in large part on ensuring high quality, reliable telephone service at reasonable rates to Canadians across the country.

History of the Canadian Radio-television Commission

The Canadian Radio-television Commission emerged from a series of commissions, studies, hearings and legislation. The agency was created in 1968 to regulate the Canadian broadcasting industry, a job that had previously been the domain of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation until 1958, when Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s government created the Board of Broadcast Governors (BBG) (CRTC, 2008).

In its earliest days, the Commission’s job was to oversee provisions of the Broadcasting Act, which included the following: confirming the CBC’s mandate as a national broadcaster; stronger restrictions on foreign ownership of broadcast outlets; ensuring adequate amounts of Canadian content; and a vision of Canada’s broadcasting system as the promoter and guardian of Canadian cultural, social and economic structures (CBC, 2006).

In 1976, the regulator’s name was changed to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) when its mandate was expanded to include federally regulated common carriers; namely, telephone companies. Since then, the CRTC’s domain has expanded to include telecommunications carriers and service providers that fall within federal jurisdiction. The broadened scope coincides with new developments in telecommunications technology, including cellular phones, the Internet and Voiceover IP (VoIP), to name a few.

The Mandate, Structure and Accountability of the CRTC

The General Operations of the Canadian Radio-television Commission

The Mandate of the CRTC

The CRTC’s regulatory authority is derived from three acts: the Broadcasting Act (1991), the Telecommunications Act (1993), and the Bell Canada Act (1987).

According to the Broadcasting Act, the CRTC has the authority to grant licences to radio and television stations for up to seven years. Typically, renewing a licence is a formality: the broadcaster reapplies for the licence and the public is permitted to file complaints. Should there be a significant number of complaints, or if the CRTC has determined the broadcaster is not living up to the spirit of its licence, the regulator can impose conditions with the renewal (CBC, 2006). The CRTC may grant a temporary renewal of a year or two, though stipulating the conditions the broadcaster must meet in order for the licence to be fully renewed.

The CRTC can also revoke licences, which it did to Genex Communications in July 2004 over its licence for Quebec City radio station CHOI. In 2002, the CRTC put Genex Communications on notice following 47 complaints the regulator received between 1998 and 2001. The complaints were about a variety of issues ranging from on-air swearing, to sexually explicit and racist comments, and hate propaganda (CBC, 2006). Genex Communications was granted a two-year renewal, but the CRTC pulled the broadcaster’s licence when it failed to remedy the complaints. Generally, the CRTC rarely revokes licences.

In the case of broadcasting, the CRTC’s role is to regulate services (that is, radio and television) and also the means of receiving those services, such as cable. However, it is worthwhile to note the CRTC does not regulate technologies: “According to the Broadcasting Act, technology is a means to an end, not the end itself. For example, the Broadcasting Act does not require the CRTC to be concerned with the Internet as a whole, but only with the Internet as it is used in broadcasting” (Salter 2008). When faced with a new technology associated with broadcasting or a new service, the CRTC must determine if it has the legal mandate to respond (Salter 2008). Generally, the CRTC’s regulatory parameters are quite broad.

The Structure of the CRTC

Up to 13 full-time and six part-time commissioners can be appointed for renewable terms of up to five years. Full-time commissioners include the chair, the vice-chair of broadcasting and the vice-chair of telecommunications. Only full-time commissioners can participate in the decision-making process for telecommunications, however, all commissioners are involved in broadcasting decisions.

In addition, the CRTC has approximately 465 employees, most of which are based at the agency’s headquarters in Gatineau, Quebec, across the Rideau River from Ottawa. In the past the CRTC has issued separate annual reports for broadcasting and telecommunications; however, in 2008 it issued its first Communications Monitoring Report on the communications industry.

Accountability and the CRTC

The CRTC is an independent agency that reports to Parliament through the Minister of Canadian Heritage. While the federal government generally allows the CRTC to make decisions independently (as per its mandate), it can issue directions about policies to the CRTC, it can require the CRTC to reexamine its decisions, or it can set aside a decision by the CRTC (Salter 2008). Only the federal government can repeal or revise the Broadcasting Act and the Telecommunications Act.

The CRTC is supposed to ensure that Canadians across the country can access Canadian services and programs (Salter, 2008). Moreover, the regulatory agency is meant to be adaptable to technological change, “to find ways to accommodate whatever new technologies deliver, either by devising ways to regulate it or by exempting them from regulatory scrutiny” (Salter, 2008). In making decisions, regulation is only one of the CRTC’s options; it can also consider not regulating or deregulation (Salter, 2008).

Regarding telecommunications, the Commission deals with legislation and tries to give effect to the policies expressed in it (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel, 2006). The breadth and depth of the CRTC’s administration of the Telecommunications Act varies widely in different sections of the Act. For example, it has wide discretion regarding whether carriers’ rates are just and reasonable, but no discretion regarding restrictions in foreign ownership. In instances where parties assert the Commission has overstepped its statutory powers or has misinterpreted legislation, the courts act as a check. Governing legislation defines the extent of the CRTC’s jurisdiction and the extent of the regulatory or legal powers available to it (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel, 2006).

As mentioned previously, although the federal government does not generally intervene in the CRTC’s affairs, there are exceptions. For example, in 2006 the CRTC put restrictions on larger telecom companies so that smaller companies could compete in Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services. Its ruling was based on concerns that larger companies would offer services below cost, thereby forcing the smaller players out of the market and depriving consumers of choice. Then-Industry Minister Maxima Bernier overrode the CRTC’s decision, removing regulations on the former monopolies when they sell these services (Canadian Press, 2006).

The CRTC and Canadian Content Rules

CRTC quotas and Canadian cultural identity

A central tenet of Canada’s broadcasting system is that it serves as a “tool for protecting and promoting Canadian culture and achieving key social objectives” (CRTC, 2008). Over the years, Canadian legislators have deemed Canadian broadcasting to be essential to preserving the country’s national sovereignty. Means of achieving these two objectives have included creating the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Canada’s public broadcaster, and stipulating rules for Canadian content. In 1970, Pierre Juneau, the CRTC’s first chairman exclaimed: “Canadian broadcasting should be Canadian.” He introduced Canadian content rules for radio and television that remain in effect to this day (CBC, 2008).

For radio, the quota for Canadian musical content is 35 percent; it is, however, adjusted for some licensees such as classical music, which is 10 percent (Salter, 2008). Radio content is classified under the MAPL system (music, artist, production and lyrics). In general, private television broadcasters must achieve a yearly Canadian content level of at least 60 percent overall, measured over the course of the entire broadcast day, plus at least 50 percent between 6 p.m. and midnight (Media Awareness Network, 2008). Canada’s national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, must ensure that at least 60 percent of its program schedule between 6 a.m. and midnight consists of Canadian productions, as well as maintaining a level of 60 percent over the course of the broadcast day (Media Awareness Network, 2008).

The quota system was created to nurture, cultivate and promote Canadian culture and artists, as well as to prevent it from being overshadowed by the United States, an overwhelming source of popular culture.

Issues and Debates Surrounding the CRTC

Legitimacy of the CRTC and the proposed need for regulation

Many issues and debates have arisen regarding the CRTC’s role as a regulator of Canada’s broadcasting and telecommunications sectors. Since its inception, the CRTC has made hundreds of decisions and rulings, many of which go beyond the scope of this article. However, the focus here will be on the issues of scarcity and Canadian content, and the impact of evolving technologies.

The CRTC (under the Broadcasting Act) was created to safeguard a scarce resource, the Canadian airwaves, and to ensure the public had ongoing access to them (Millin, 2004). In the earliest days of broadcasting, there were limited frequencies available, so the government foresaw a need to regulate licensees and services and establish policies regarding content to be aired. Over time though, the number of available airwaves has increased substantially thanks to technological advancements. Consequently, proponents of limited or no regulation contend the CRTC is an archaic, outdated institution. They assert that scarcity is no longer an issue; however, new technologies will continue to inform and shape regulatory decisions for Canadian broadcasting services.

The CRTC was also created to promote and protect the production of Canadian content (Millin, 2004). There is considerable debate whether it has been successful in achieving this end. Some proponents of regulation point to the growing presence of Canadian popular culture and musical talent, which they attribute, at least in part, to the CRTC’s Canadian content requirements. Opponents of deregulation argue that without regulatory obligations to fund Canadian content, there would be little incentive to invest in Canadian content, particularly drama and scripted comedy, which are expensive to produce (Trichur, 2008). While there are strict requirements for Canadian content, in the past Canadian television broadcasters have opted to produce low-budget (and sometimes low-quality) programming to fulfill their obligations. The quality of Canadian production has improved over time.

Technologies used in both broadcasting and telecommunications technologies have evolved rapidly. In particular, the advent of the Internet has achieved the following, to name but a few: 1) facilitated new means of communications, such as Internet telephony; and 2) enabled the widespread dissemination of video and audio online (for example, television programming, movies, streaming media) beyond the traditional methods. The evolution of new technologies, which provide channels for universal access, has created new regulatory challenges for the CRTC.

The evolution of new technologies has also heightened arguments regarding the CRTC’s very existence. During public hearings held in 2008, cable and satellite companies (private, for-profit institutions) urged the CRTC to streamline the regulations governing their industry. They contended they needed more latitude on how TV services are packages to keep consumers from turning to the Internet or other options (Trichur, 2008). Further, they argued that consumers want more choice, including a greater variety of foreign content. On the other hand, there are arguments that the CRTC needs to continue to regulate, particularly as technological advances continue. Take, for example, concerns that Internet streaming will undermine Canadian programming. The Canadian Association of Broadcasters has asserted: “all reasonable public policy measures and instruments will be needed to maintain the integrity of a separate and distinct Canadian program rights market” (Geist, 2008).

As Canada’s regulatory agency for broadcasting and telecommunications, the CRTC has navigated through complex issues and debates in making its decisions. It has undergone considerable scrutiny and been heavily criticized; critics have called for its abolishment. These criticisms have become louder in an arena where technologies permit greater choice and offer more avenues for dissemination of both broadcasting and telecommunications services. The issue, however, may not really pertain to the CRTC’s viability as a regulatory body, but rather to the need to craft regulations that address the new communications landscape of the 21st century.

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