The chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission admits the regulator is dealing with an outdated rulebook and says his goal is to modernize the entire system by the end of his five-year term.

Jean-Pierre Blais, who took over the role from Konrad von Finckenstein in 2012, has the task of regulating a wireless, telephone, internet and broadcasting sector in the midst of unprecedented change.

“We’re trying to get ahead of the curve. We’ve got three big proceedings this fall and they’re all about setting the stage for the future of Canada’s telecommunications system,” he said in an interview with CBC’s Amanda Lang.

Hearings are scheduled to:

  • Look at the state of television and determine new rules for cable offerings.
  • Look at wireless roaming rates.
  • Set new terms for private radio.

That list only scratches the surface of the changes in broadcasting and communications. Canadians have changed their TV watching habits and expect to watch TV online or on mobile devices, so how should the regulator be involved with that?

Jean-Pierre Blais

CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais says his goal is to modernize the CRTC's toolbox by the end of his five-year term, which began in 2012. (CBC)

Wireless and telecom services are increasingly carrying data – so what rules can ensure all Canadians have fair access to networks that can handle internet?

The model for traditional radio or TV broadcasting is less and less sustainable, with conventional networks losing money, so how can a federal agency ensure Canadian content in the face of cash-strapped broadcasters?

“Everything is changed now. Everyone realizes the way they consume their onscreen content has changed. Yes, there’s still people who watch in the traditional way in the family room ... but people are also seeing it on the move, in mobile devices,” Blais said.

“I think there’s a realization, even in the past 12 months, I see there is a facing the fact that the world will be fundamentally different,” he added.

Consultation with Canadians on TV

That’s one reason why Canadians were consulted first to determine which direction the CRTC should take on regulating cable and providing channel choice.

“We’re trying to get Canadians, regulated industries, producers, those that watch TV together in a room and say ‘OK how can we prepare in a sustainable way for the next five to 15 years?’” Blais said.

What Canadians said was that they wanted more flexible choices on cable and satellite, rather than bundled subscriptions, but Blais warns there is a price to be paid for choice.

“We proposed a model that is the subject of our TV policy consultation where you could have the choice of purchasing on a pick and pay or stand-alone basis. People often forget there is the word ‘pay’ in the pick and pay option,” he said.

“We’re also going to explore a smaller offering – having a basic that goes back to basic.”

Providing Canadian content is in the public interest and the CRTC will continue to play a role in ensuring Canadian stories are told and there is money to do it, he said.

Canadian content part of mandate

“Yes we have content from the U.S., it’s great content in the English-language market and it’s very popular, but we have to be able to see the news and information in our neighbourhoods, in our towns and our cities and our country – a Canadian perspective. That’s important because it defines us as who we are,” Blais said.

Blais said the CRTC’s role as a regulator is to balance public interest.

“All broadcasters, even private broadcasters, have a public service role. That’s the reason they have access to these airwaves – they have to give back,” he said.

On Wednesday, the CRTC revised rules for the national Do Not Call system that was set up in 2008 to prevent unwanted phone calls from telemarketers.

The CRTC ruled that Canadians will no longer be required to register their numbers every five years to keep them active on the list — despite industry opposition to permanent registrations. On Thursday, Blais said in a speech that the CRTC is also reviewing ways to extend its reach and track down international telemarketers that don’t abide by Canadian rules.

"It's our job to make sure citizens can enjoy peace and quiet in their homes and a more secure online world," he said.

Amanda Lang's interview with Jean-Pierre Blais will air Friday afternoon on The Lang & O'Leary Exchange.