Earlier today, the CRTC rejected Bell's proposed acquisition of Astral. The quick, unanimous decision - the hearings wrapped up just over a month ago - leaves no doubt about CRTC chair Jean Pierre Blais' top priority. Simply put, the public (whether as the public interest or as consumers) comes first. This is not a decision many expected. I wrote several pieces on the merger, but thought that the Competition Bureau was a far more difficult regulatory hurdle for the deal.
The CRTC identified multiple problems with the Bell bid (radio, tangible benefits, lack of evidence that bigger is better online), but the conclusion says it all:
The Commission finds that BCE has not discharged its burden and demonstrated that, on balance, this transaction is in the public interest. The benefits proposed would advantage BCE and its services, but the Commission is not persuaded that the transaction would provide significant and unequivocal benefits to the Canadian broadcasting system and to Canadians sufficient to outweigh the concerns described above.
While demonstrating that the transaction is in the public interest is always the language used in these proceedings, the CRTC has in the past focused on the tangible benefits package (ie. the multi-million dollar payments to creator groups) as the primary proxy for public interest. No longer. The CRTC's focus today is unequivocally on the broader public interest with consumer impact the leading concern.
This approach has been building for several months. From the appointment of a consumer chief to Blais raising consumer interventions directly during the Bell-Astral hearing to the creation of a new enforceable wireless code of conduct, the CRTC is leaving no doubt about the prioritization of consumers. Its three year priorities document placed consumer access as the top priority, dropping the prior emphasis on balance. Moreover, the decision to kill LPIF over the objections of creator groups sent another signal that the CRTC was focused intently on consumers and the public interest.
In four months, Blais has transformed the CRTC into a pro-consumer advocate, creating the kind of regulatory agency that until recently was scarcely imaginable. The change is long overdue and credit must go to the new chair and to the government, which has presumably provided the mandate for real change in Canadian telecom and broadcast regulation.