Why Does It Matter, Anyways?: A Reflection on Corporations and Competition in Canadian Communication

Opinion by Georgia Evans. This article is part of the Corporations and Competition, a series by Georgia Evans on Canadian Telecommunications policy.

The exterior of an apartment.

This year, it's been very easy to lose faith. Faith in the moment, faith in the future, faith in the people who are meant to protect you. Cynicism is natural when times are tough, when decisionmakers seem to make all the wrong choices, or all the right choices way too late. When such cynicism takes hold, it is often accompanied by questions like, “why does any of what I am doing matter?” and “why get caught up in issues I have no control over?”

I’ve been working on this series, Corporations and Competition in Canadian Communications, for the bulk of 2021 – planning, researching, interviewing, writing. At the best of times, it’s been a project that I’ve been incredibly passionate about trying to do justice; about properly exploring the intricacies of how Canadian competition policy and the power dynamics among our telecommunications companies have come to be and telling this story to the people who want to understand it. At the worst of times, like the experiences of many people this year, it’s been just another thing on my plate that gets in the way of wallowing in the sadness of living through a pandemic, an ever-worsening climate crisis, and just trying to get by.

I’ve had the pleasure of connecting with many people throughout the creation of this series. Near the very beginning, Professor Dwayne Winseck and I sat down (via Zoom, of course) to discuss market power, and how its concentration in the Canadian network media economy has grown. He said something that really struck me and reinforced the why of it all: why people in this space are fighting for change and why I bother learning and talking more about it. While discussing the Rogers-Shaw merger with him, I was speaking in terms of the ‘consumer,’ which does not paint a true picture of how meaningful the fight for access and affordability really is. As he explained, “this is not about toasters. This is not about running shoes. This is about communication and the conditions of communication... These are extensions of humankind and the way we communicate and express ourselves to the world and one another.”

When the pandemic began, we moved our entire lives online. We moved the conversations about how to be safe online, and that shut out the most vulnerable communities, making them even more at risk. We moved our entire lives online and the people with poor internet quality got stuck in an endless buffering. We moved our entire lives online and the people with data caps were effectively told they could only have a finite amount of connection to their family, friends, work, and school. People were laid off in droves, and still had to pay hundreds of dollars to access the technology that could connect them to the next opportunity, to the next paycheque that would put food on the table.

This is why we get bogged down in the policy details. The growing concentration of vertically integrated telecom-media companies and the digital divide matter. They matter in small ways like not being able to communicate with people when you’re out in public or struggling to stream the game you want to watch. But they also matter in very big ways: whole communities are excluded from the world we’ve built online; families are forced to choose between food and communications bills; and someone who hangs out with a fascist can control the dissemination of communication, media and knowledge for millions of Canadians. As this series has sought to illustrate, our policymakers have the power to change these conditions through legislation and enforcement. They can change our competition policy to value fairness over ‘efficiency’; they can side with indie telcos instead of propping up powerful incumbents, and they can ensure that their broadband funds don’t go to the corporations that have perpetuated the digital divide. Perhaps they are the ones who need the greatest reminder of why this year.

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Thank you to Mark Buell, Robin Shaban, Dwayne Winseck, Keldon Bester, and Maureen James for taking the time to talk with me about competition policy, Canadian telecommunications, community networks, and all things in between. Thank you as well to all the people and organizations who advocate every day for affordable, meaningful access, and to those who provide affordable connections to the people who need it most. Thank you to Lindsey Keene for contributing an invaluable piece of this series, and to Ben Beiles for helping build it in the beginning. Thank you to the whole KPR team who’ve encouraged and supported me throughout this summer (and now fall and winter) series.