Who Would Want Konrad’s Job?

courtesy of Marketing Magazine,
October 17, Chris Powell

Konrad von Finckenstein only got one term as chair of the CRTC, but his tumultuous five years demonstrated just how tough a job it is

In a 25-year career in Canadian broadcasting that has included countless CRTC hearings, Jay Switzer has only once been ruled out of order. It happened in 2007, early in Konrad von Finckenstein’s term as CRTC chair, during a public hearing for new radio licenses in Western Canada.

While the former president and CEO of CHUM Limited can’t recall the exact details of the public scolding—something about documents for an intervention, he thinks—he remembers that von Finckenstein was absolutely correct. “I couldn’t fault him—he was right,” he says. “It wasn’t serious and I was able to tease my regulatory gang for years after that.”

Switzer, who is now chair of the broadcast start-up Hollywood Suite, says that such rigid adherence to protocol, combined with a genuine desire to make the CRTC both more responsive and transparent, is emblematic of von Finckenstein’s term as head of the federal telecom/broadcast regulator.

Just as emblematic, von Finckenstein’s detractors claim, are a tendency towards bullying and a distinct lack of vision that prevented him from grasping the full impact of new technology and how it fits within Canada’s regulatory framework.

The von Finckenstein era will conclude in January 2012, five years after it began. The Harper government recently declined to give the one-time Justice of the Federal Court and former head of the Competition Bureau a second term. Whether or not he’ll be missed is open to interpretation. His job was a tough one: big telecommunications companies wanted (and expected) someone not quick to impose new regulations. He disappointed. While consumers (or at least the self-anointed consumer rights groups) wanted someone to rein in those big telcos. Hard to meet that mandate.

His tough, no-nonsense approach didn’t exactly endear him to the participants on both sides of the regulatory process who have been castigated during public hearings and had multiple failed bids for licenses and new regulation quashed.

“He treats everyone who comes before him with a certain severity,” says Steve Anderson, founder and executive director of Vancouver-based Open Media, a not-for-profit organization that led the charge against usage-based billing earlier this year.

“It’s good that he doesn’t blindly accept what big telecom companies are saying, but failing to differentiate between groups that are representing the public interest and groups representing their own narrow commercial interests is problematic.”

Anderson says von Finckenstein has a “mixed legacy” as CRTC chairman, presiding over the introduction of welcome regulation regarding diversity of voices, yet simultaneously “insulated” from public opinion and far too close to the industries he was tasked with regulating.

Under von Finckenstein’s watch, says Anderson, the country’s biggest media entities—Bell, Rogers Communications, Shaw Communications and Quebecor—have become more profitable and have a greater stranglehold on the telecom and broadcast sectors than ever before. “Clearly the big telephone companies have done very well and ordinary Canadians have not,” he says. As evidence, he points to a June 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which ranks Canada 27th out of 29 OECD nations when it comes to monthly subscription fees for a high-speed internet connection. The average price of $64.72 is more than double the average of $29.40 for first-ranked Greece.

Yet, much to their chagrin, the same corporations that Anderson claims have benefited from the regulator’s pro-business approach have also been on the losing end of numerous decisions during von Finckenstein’s term. Just last month, Bell Media president Kevin Crull dismissed the CRTC’s ruling on vertical integration as “severely misguided.”

Asked last week to assess von Finckenstein’s legacy as CRTC chair, Bell declined comment, perhaps confirming the adage “If you can’t say something nice…” If Bell’s decision to buy CTV late last year was based largely on the expectation of gaining the right to stream the network’s content to Bell’s wireless subscribers, it’s safe to say Bell will be happy to see him go.

It’s widely believed that frequent clashes between the CRTC and the governing Conservatives were key factors in his being granted only a single term.

Recently, it was over usage-based billing. But perhaps most contentious was the CRTC decision to deny a license to Wind Mobile after it deemed that its owner, Globalive Wireless Management Corp., did not meet Canadian ownership requirements. The decision was overturned by cabinet and ultimately ended up in court.

But some industry observers say it was because of von Finckenstein’s unwillingness to be a puppet for the Harper government that the CRTC was so progressive during one of the most tumultuous periods in Canadian telecom and broadcasting history—an era characterized by massive consolidation and technological advances that reverberated through the bedrock of the broadcast system.

“He didn’t just go in there thinking his job was to keep the Prime Minister happy. His job was to do what a couple of acts of Parliament demanded of him,” says Ian Morrison, a spokesperson with the broadcast watchdog Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. “That independence speaks well for him.”

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