Ottawa has tapped former Telus Corp. executive Ian Scott to lead Canada's broadcast and telecom regulator, a move that some say highlights the importance of Internet and wireless policy as the government raises concerns about competition and affordability.
Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly on Tuesday officially named Mr. Scott to a five-year term term as chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. He will take over on Sept. 5, bringing an end to a period of transition at the regulator after his consumer-friendly predecessor Jean-Pierre Blais departed last month.
Mr. Scott will quickly be faced with a public hearing that raises the difficult issue of competition in the wireless industry. Ottawa has directed the CRTC to reconsider a key ruling that clamped down on smaller wireless companies' access to the cellular networks of the largest industry players. He also steps into the role just as the government is expected to reveal a new strategy for the Canadian cultural sector that could reshape the CRTC's very mandate.
Mr. Scott has about three decades of regulatory and government affairs experience, with some stints in public service at the Competition Bureau and an executive secondment to the CRTC itself. But much of his career has been spent in the private sector, from his most recent role at satellite communications provider Telesat Holdings Inc. to a position as vice-president of federal government relations for Telus, one of Canada's three dominant wireless providers.
Mr. Scott's telecom background is notable, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist said, particularly in light of lobbying by a coalition of cultural and creative groups who had written to Ms. Joly urging her to appoint someone with media production experience. Telecom revenue represents almost $48-billion out of the total $65.7-billion communications market.
"I think this signals that the government gets that communications policy is largely a telecom framing today. It's the Internet … that's where broadcast is happening, so you want someone with that kind of experience," Prof. Geist said, adding that in recent weeks the Liberal government's position on telecom policy has also become more clear.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains gave a pivotal speech in early June in which he raised concerns about the high price of wireless and Internet services. He also instructed the CRTC to reconsider the "WiFi-first" model in which small players need access to the dominant carriers' networks.
"We now have the government once again clearly engaged and concerned about the competitiveness and cost of Internet services," Prof. Geist said. "It should be abundantly clear to the CRTC that this is a government policy priority."
The previous Conservative government gave Mr. Blais a letter setting out his mandate in 2012 that urged the CRTC to take a more active role on telecom affordability issues. A spokesman for Ms. Joly said Tuesday that, as she is expected to release her vision for the cultural sector in September following a major review, she will not publish guidelines for agencies under her purview until after that time.
Finding someone to lead the CRTC is not an easy task, and it is even harder to find someone with both telecom and broadcast experience, communications lawyer Peter Miller said. "Economically, obviously, the telecom side is far more important, but politically, the broadcasting side is often more sensitive."
For now, creative groups that had railed against some of Mr. Blais's recent rulings – and appealed certain decisions to the federal cabinet – are optimistic about Mr. Scott. Both the Canadian Media Producers Association and the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) expressed hope on Tuesday that the new chairman will take a different direction on policy related to Canadian content.
Some consumer groups are more wary, however, with Internet advocacy group OpenMedia calling Mr. Scott a "concerning choice" and arguing that an "industry insider" could be detrimental for consumer interests.
"I understand the concerns that a lot on the civil-society side are expressing. The optics of hiring someone straight out of the telecom world understandably raises concerns," Prof. Geist said. "But I think it's a challenging position that requires real experience and expertise," he added, noting that the pool of candidates who can bring both relevant experience and "full independence" to the role is not "as large as some people would like to think it is."
Once installed in independent roles, people often have the capacity to surprise, Prof. Geist said. He said Mr. Blais was seen as a champion of cultural industries when he was appointed chairman – coming as he did with a background in the Heritage Ministry – but by the end of his tenure creative groups were dismayed by his recent decisions. "I don't think you can judge outcomes based on a person's CV. People do and say things on behalf of their employer because that's part of their employment."
Mr. Scott previously faced conflict-of-interest concerns when he was still listed as a lobbyist for Telus while working at the CRTC as part of a government "executive interchange program." He told the CBC in 2010 that he had not taken his name off the lobbyist registry but was not lobbying for Telus during his time at the CRTC.
Mr. Miller said he is not concerned about the new chairman's potential conflicts of interest because they are all evident, unlike previous chairs who had worked as lawyers for undisclosed clients. "From what I know of Ian, he's a man of integrity."
The government also named bureaucrat Caroline Simard vice-chair of broadcasting and appointed CRTC lawyer Christianne Laizner interim vice-chair of telecom for a period of up to one year while a search is on for a permanent replacement.