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New CRTC chief Blais aims to ‘gain the trust’ of consumers

The federal broadcast and telecommunications regulator is on a mission to “rebuild” the trust of Canadians by renewing its focus on consumers, creators and citizens.

Jean-Pierre Blais, the newly minted chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, gave that frank assessment as he outlined his vision for the regulatory body at an industry conference on Monday. After spending roughly four months on the job, Blais is already making strides to define his legacy for when his term ends in 2017. At that time, he wants the CRTC to be an institution that is “trusted” by Canadians, noting many are skeptical about the regulator and its mandate in the digital era.

“We know we have some work to do to gain the trust of Canadians. Can we convince everyone to trust us? No, not everyone,” Blais said in a keynote address to the annual conference of the Canadian chapter of the International Institute of Communications.

“But we can do better, and we will do better – to earn their trust, every day, in every action and in every decision.”

In order to drive home that point, Blais read out comments posted on The Globe and Mail’s website regarding a story about the CRTC’s plan to create a new national code to beef up consumer protections in the $18 billion wireless market. One of the commenters, whose remarks he cited, called for Ottawa to “abolish the CRTC.” Another said the commission was “paternalistic and industry-focused,” adding “most people do not trust the CRTC to act in the consumer interest.”

Empowered consumers, he said, are a sign of a healthy and increasingly competitive marketplace -- adding the average Canadian family spends in excess of $2,100 on communication services each year. “That’s the sixth-largest family expense. It’s just about what they spend on health care.”

Its focus on bolstering the public’s trust comes after several difficult years for the regulator after it issued unpopular decisions on issues like usage-based billing for wholesale Internet access and Wind Mobile’s ownership structure. Eager to turn the page on the past, the CRTC is finding more ways to engage ordinary Canadians. For instance, it is overhauling its website and is offering evening sessions for the coming licence renewal hearings for the CBC so that average people are able to attend.

The commission’s boldest move to date was a surprise decision this month to kill BCE Inc.’s proposed $3-billion acquisition of Astral Media Inc. on the grounds the deal was not in the public interest.

Nonetheless, Blais gave the business community assurances on Monday that he does not plan to become a heavy-handed regulator, adding that regulation ought to remain the exception so that companies have the “full flexibility” to innovate.

“We need successful companies large and small, national and local, competing in the marketplace. We have confidence in the business sector. For the most part we will get out of your way,” he said.

“However, we won’t hesitate to intervene when there’s market failure or a need to protect Canadians.”

Blais, who began his five-year term on June 18, has taken the helm at a transformational time for the communications industry. Fixed-Internet and wireless technologies are rapidly outpacing regulation and redefining the media landscape by giving consumers more ways to access content.

Despite the CRTC’s rejection of the BCE-Astral deal, communications companies are more “vertically integrated” than ever following a wave of media consolidation in recent years. Vertical integration means the companies own and create content, but also own distribution networks that relay that content to viewers – further blurring the lines between broadcasting and telecom. CTV Two CTV News CTV News Channel BNN - Business News Network CP24