Room for improvement at #CTS14

About a year ago, I published a post about the Canadian Telecom Summit, organized by Mark Goldberg. The piece I wrote was critical of the conference, based on high cost of a ticket and the resulting lack of presence from consumer groups and academics. A few weeks ago, I found out that Mr. Goldberg is indeed not interested in including people who are critical of his conference’s relative lack of inclusiveness. I, in my capacity as a student researching Canadian telecommunications, requested a ticket at the student discount rate (There is a student discount, but its disbursement appears to be selective), a request that was swiftly rejected:

Via email from MG:

I try to be pretty generous with student access to the event, incurring out of pocket costs in the tens of thousands of dollars associated with food and beverages for our student delegates. In your case, I am having trouble with the idea of paying for someone who appears to have set out to actively do harm to my livelihood. […] I don’t see how or why it is appropriate for you to benefit from a subsidy that is made possible precisely by that which you ridiculed in your blog post. 

I regret that I have to say ‘no’ to your request.

Mark Goldberg

In retrospect, the tone of my post may have been overly supercilious. I never meant to ridicule the conference, just to point out that it has room for improvement. I had no intention of setting out to actively do harm to Mr. Goldberg’s livelihood then, nor do I now. And, not being acquainted with Mr. Goldberg, I most certainly did not mean to personally offend him, but it was clear that I had. So I sent Mark an apology, expressing regret and embarrassment for thoughtlessly offending him. However, ironically this whole ordeal has confirmed my initial observation that the conference is not very inclusive; therefore I must stand by my original conviction that the high price of attendance intentionally excludes certain groups, and in so doing diminishes claims made by conference organizers that the program is properly representative of a wide range of Canadian stakeholders. (Certainly consumers and researchers will be underrepresented.)

Peter Nowak published a blog post to this effect the other night. According to him, John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) is “perhaps the lone voice of the public […] in what is otherwise an industry love-in.” In fact, Lawford is the sole speaker at the ‘Regulatory Blockbuster’ panel who is not a corporate officer in the employ of a major wireless carrier. This means that the views of the regulator, which ostensibly represents the interest of the public according to its legislative mandate, aren’t even included in a panel dedicated to regulation! Actually there are only 2 representatives from the regulator on the bill (out of roughly 60 presenters), and Industry Minister Christian Paradis decided to cancel at the last minute, undoubtedly to avoid negative reaction to his announcement that he’s squashed the Telus-Mobilicity buyout.

While the conference is being billed as “the 12th annual gathering of the leadership of stakeholders in the Canadian Communications sector”, it seems that the organizers’ concept of ‘stakeholders’ doesn’t include the public, consumer advocacy groups or academic researchers.

The lack of public inclusion in the conference comes at a time when consumer issues are front and centre for the regulator, who on Monday released their ‘Wireless Code of Conduct,’ an effort to reign in what are widely regarded as unfair industry practices. A spate of attempted mergers, such as Bell-Astral or Telus-Mobilicity, and business deals like the Rogers-Videotron spectrum agreement that smack of anti-competitive or even collusive firm behaviour have been appearing in the news with some regularity, confirming what many members of the public already know: our wireless sector is broken. That the recommendations to come out of an industry echo chamber are likely to extol the virtues of more consolidation, higher prices and the realization of ‘efficiencies’ which never seem to wind up ‘trickling down’ to customers’ bills will serve to fan the flames of public outrage. Without fair representation of the whole spectrum of stakeholders, how can we expect progressive ideas on how to solve these problems?

It’s well known that consumer interests often conflict with the interests of the industry and the government. Case in point: the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) just released a report claiming that Canadians would be willing to pay even more than they already do for mobile service. This implies both that higher prices would be a good thing for Canadians, and that we are currently getting a bargain. To say that the views representing the telecommunications industry are out of joint with most Canadians’ would be a massive understatement. In an article for Maclean’s, Jesse Brown sums it up nicely with this apt metaphor:

I say charging $50 for an umbrella during a thunderstorm isn’t a good deal just because people would still buy them at $60.

Bernard Lord, President & CEO of the CWTA, gave a keynote lecture the first day of the conference. These are the types of views being given the spotlight at this year’s Canadian Telecom Summit.

While Lord will be presented on behalf of his lobby group, one prominent consumer advocacy group who might have constructively contributed, Steve Anderson’s, wasn’t invited. It seems certain to me that excluding the views of public interest groups from the discussion at Canada’s premier telecom conference can’t help the chances of developing equitable, practical and balanced approaches to fixing issues such as a wireless policy ‘in tatters,’ and a digital television transition in disarray. Shutting such groups out leaves discussion of these issues solely up to the leaders of an industry that believes we should just quit complaining and start happily handing over more money.

This all adds up to a major problem for the broader utility of information coming out of a conference claiming to represent the views of stakeholders. Recent actions by the government show that these types of industry-centric viewpoints are increasingly out of step with reality. Some have suggested that self-regulated markets are going the way of the dodo in Canadian telecom. So while CTS13 didn’t include the public in its group of ‘stakeholders,’ there’s always next year.

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