CRTC head talks wireless plans, phishing scams and the future of streaming in Canada

With phone scams on the rise and a plethora of streaming services flooding the market, how well are we prepared for the 2020s? Spark host Nora Young talks to CRTC Chairperson and CEO Ian Scott.

A feature interview with CRTC Chairperson and CEO Ian Scott

CRTC Chairperson Ian Scott acknowledges that wireless rates are higher in Canada compared to major trading partners. "Consumers are unhappy," he told Spark host Nora Young. (Gregory Pilsworth)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Most Canadians know what the CRTC is, but they might be hard pressed to explain what exactly a broadcast and telecommunications regulator does. 

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's (CRTC) to-do list includes overseeing issues that hit all of us where we live: how much we pay for our phone plans, how we can avoid falling for a scam email or text message that looks legit, and preparing Canada for the new digital economy.     

CRTC Chairperson and CEO Ian Scott joined Spark host Nora Young for a wide-ranging discussion on wireless plans, phishing scams and the future of digital streaming in Canada. 

Here is part of their discussion.

So can we start by talking about wireless in Canada? I think a lot of us have the impression that we pay a lot for our plans for mobile devices. How do the numbers stack up for Canadians in terms of quality and price?

Like you, I've heard a lot about wireless pricing, and certainly we saw that in the recent election that Canadians have certainly expressed a concern. How do we stack up? That's a challenging question.

It's particularly problematic, I think, for Canadians with the lowest incomes. We don't have a 'lifeline' service, a really basic service.- CRTC Chairperson and CEO Ian Scott

There are lots of international studies, and it gets difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons, just because of different plans and things like subsidies for handsets. But I will say, right upfront, that rates are higher than many of our major trading partners — and clearly they're too high. Consumers are unhappy.

It's particularly problematic, I think, for Canadians with the lowest incomes. We don't have a "lifeline" service, a really basic service. And on the other side, people want the latest phones with a lot of data, and they want it at a reasonable price.

That gets more challenging for obvious reasons; if you want a faster, bigger car, sometimes they cost more. But clearly, the objective is to have a wide range of services that meet the needs of all Canadians.

I want to talk a bit about spam and phishing scams. Things, at least for me, suddenly seem to be getting worse — phone calls that look like they're from local numbers, now we're starting to see these Google Calendar scams, text messages with suspicious links. Does it seem to be getting worse to you?

Yes is the short answer. Spam and unsolicited communications generally is a huge problem, and the CRTC takes it very seriously, as do other government players and the carriers themselves. 

It's the nefarious players that are the problem, and that is an international problem. There's two kinds of these that come from international sources. One we'll be dealing with very shortly.

There are some new rules coming into place, and that's going to have carriers block calls where the numbers don't make sense. So this is an international call, it comes in and it kind of says: area code 123-456-789-10. And so now the carriers are going to identify those nonsensical numbers and cut out the calls right at the source. So that's one part. 

The harder part is "spoofing." This is where, from all appearances, when you have caller ID and you look at your wireless phone, it says it's your mom calling or it says it's Canada Revenue Agency or your local police force. Those are generated by a computer, and it's a technology that allows that to happen, and we're working hard, as are other countries, to try and reduce that. 

In fact, there's something coming up: STIR/SHAKEN is what we call it [short for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited/Signature-based Handling of Asserted Information Using Tokens], a system of call authentication. And the FCC has mandated that U.S. carriers get this in place by the end of the current year, and we are scheduled to follow very quickly. 

Scott says there are planned new measures to combat increased spam calls on mobile phones. (CBC)

Basically what it does is it will allow carriers to identify a call that's legitimate and put a sort of flag on the call so that when you receive the call — and it says it's from your mother and it has a notification that says this call's been authorized — then we're 99 per cent sure that's really from your mother. And if it doesn't have it, then it'll be a bit of a "buyer beware" situation where consumers should take care.

These are essentially criminal activities. It's fraud and we are doing our best to reduce crime. But you can never eliminate it. So we're making progress, but like any fraudulent or criminal activity, just as we use technology, so do the bad guys. 

I know that part of the CRTC's mandate is to protect and promote Canadian audio and video, but of course now Canadian content is being produced in a media environment where we can easily stream content from all over the world. So what do you see as the main issues around discoverability and the promotion of Canadian content in that context?

Wow, that's a big question. We used to have, for lack of a better term, a simple kind of walled garden.

If you wanted a broadcast license, you came to the CRTC, you made certain promises about what kind of news and programming you would provide, and how much Canadian content you would provide, and importantly, how much money would be directed towards things like the Canada Media Fund and other agencies or funds that are dedicated to producing Canadian stories. 

But now much of the content is not coming from inside that walled garden, but from "over the top," as we call it.

So the challenge for the regulator going forward is to find the best way to make sure that all of those companies who are deriving a benefit from the Canadian market indeed participate and contribute to ensuring the ongoing telling of those Canadian stories.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 


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