Konrad Von Finckenstein: Outgoing CRTC Chairman Pushes Big Changes To Agency And Federal Digital Strategy

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KONRAD VON FINCKENSTEIN CRTC
At age 66 Konrad von Finckenstein, the plain-speaking, career bureaucrat with the suffer-no-fools reputation is a leading voice within the government for embracing the global digital revolution. (CP) | CP

GATINEAU, Que. - Konrad von Finckenstein enjoyed his years as the CRTC's boss — now he'd like to see the place blown up.

Well, maybe not blown up, but so massively restructured and reoriented that it would be a different place altogether.

The tenure of the outgoing chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission covered a tumultuous five years in the industries he regulated — an era of mega-mergers and exponential growth of broadcasting over the Internet.

That growth leaves a lot of questions. Since the CRTC does not regulate anything on the web, how will Canadian content be protected in the future? Does it need to be? How should the feds respond when telephone, cable and television companies fuse into one?

The time has come, von Finckenstein says, to face facts: the old separation of telecom and broadcasting is obsolete. He advocates a single act to cover both sectors and a single regulator for broadcasting, telecom and even wireless spectrum — an area currently managed by Industry Canada.

"Whether you talk, whether you send video, whether you send a fax, an email ... it's just bits that are being sent over the same wire," he said in an interview. "That has completely changed our traditional definition of broadcasting and telecom. It's now essentially the same thing.

"It's time to review this legislation, it's 20 years old. We want a system that carries bits, carries them efficiently and gives Canadians as much access as possible."

At age 66, the plain-speaking, career bureaucrat with the suffer-no-fools reputation is a leading voice within the government for embracing the global digital revolution.

The Conservatives promised a digital economy strategy two years ago, but have yet to produce a plan. There seems to be no sense of urgency. They have mused about changing foreign ownership rules for telecom firms since 2009, but have yet to move. An auction of space on the wireless spectrum is scheduled for this year, but the rules have yet to be revealed.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis told the Hill Times newspaper that a copyright bill was a "key pillar" of the digital strategy. Those changes have been discussed by Ottawa for 15 years.

Von Finckenstein envisions something broader. He points out that other countries, including Australia, France and the United Kingdom, have appointed ministers to oversee all things digital. Such a position does not exist in Canada and very little government discourse revolves around the issue.

He says the cabinet hasn't acted on his ideas.

"We haven't seen any movement on this front at all, but that's partly because of the political landscape of minority governments and partly because it's a very difficult issue and not easily tackled."

Von Finckenstein's time at the CRTC was punctuated by controversial decisions, tension with cabinet and the creation of several new initiatives. Although the Conservative government is firmly geared toward cutting regulations, the CRTC chairman introduced some new ones.

Last fall, he placed new restrictions on big media corporations that hold both distribution interests (cable or satellite) and broadcasting networks, ensuring they couldn't keep TV programming away from competitors. He also forced cable and satellite firms to contribute to a fund to help support local television stations.

There were also a number of consumer-oriented initiatives — a do-not-call list for people who dislike telemarketers, better 911 service for cell users and a commissioner for telecom complaints.

And some of von Finckenstein's decisions were sent back to the drawing board by cabinet. The commission rejected wireless company Globalive's bid to launch a new cell service, deeming the company was not Canadian enough. Cabinet overturned that ruling.

Even more notable was the CRTC decision to allow big telecom Internet providers to impose usage-based limits on the smaller providers to whom they sell wholesale capacity. Industry Minister Tony Clement tweeted his disdain for the decision, riding a public backlash against the commission.

Von Finckenstein says candidly he realized that the commission's decision needed to be revisited as he sat before a parliamentary committee trying to explain it.

"Whether I like the way the minister tweeted or not is irrelevant," he said. "You've got to give him credit. He was right. This was a bad decision and it needed to be reviewed and we did it."

As far as his successor goes, von Finckenstein believes he or she should come with a certain resume.

"You certainly should understand governance, you should understand legal relationships and you should understand business, because, after all, this is a business, it's a business that has a huge social impact and that affects us all," he said.

Von Finckenstein has some advice for the new boss: keep your independent wits about you and don't get co-opted by big business.

"You go out, consult and meet with as many stakeholders as are involved because, you live very much in a bubble here, so everything you look at is through the telecom or broadcasting or communications point of view," he said.

"You go to B.C., half the people haven't even heard of the CRTC, that's very important to realize."

As for his own future, the quadrilingual grandfather says he's looking forward to some golf time.

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Konrad von Finckenstein - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Honourable Konrad W. von Finckenstein, QC - CRTC

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Time to face facts, von Finckenstein says: