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Barbara Motzney and her dream of a consumer-friendly CRTC by Rita Trichur

Apr 18, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

Barbara Motzney hopes she’s out of a job one day – at least in her current role at the CRTC.

As chief consumer officer, Ms. Motzney is charged with giving ordinary Canadians a voice at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission – a position specially created by chairman Jean-Pierre Blais as part of a broader mission to rebuild the trust of Canadians.

It’s no easy task. The federal broadcast and telecom regulator has a complicated rapport with the public. It is, by turns, commended in some quarters for promoting Canadian culture, and condemned by others for forgoing price regulation of cellphone services. There are also those perennial complaints about CRTC regulations that enable broadcasters to block Canadians from watching those showy Super Bowl ads.

Ms. Motzney is mindful of the cynicism, especially since her challenge is to bring consumer issues to the fore of the commission’s decisions. After spending 18 months spearheading cultural change, there are some signs that the 46-year-old federal agency is improving its image. Still, she looks forward to the day that consumer interests are given priority without prodding from her. In fact, this long-time public servant wants her job to become obsolete.

“Ideally, at some point in the future, you may not need a chief consumer officer,” Ms. Motzney says during an interview in her office. Sensing this reporter is incredulous, she continues: “Hopefully, it is in a long time because I am having a great time,” she says with a laugh. But she is clear: Her goal is to transform the commission. “It will all be about serving Canadians.”

She has her work cut out for her. A 2012 Reader’s Digest poll ranked the CRTC as Canada’s second “least-trusted” institution after Parliament. More recently, the CRTC’s “Let’s Talk TV” online discussion elicited blunt comments about its perceived paternalism: “If the CRTC is rightly abolished, the programming would be much more suited to my tastes as I will be able to decide for myself what I want to watch on TV.”

Still, some of the the CRTC’s recent decisions, such as the elimination of new three-year cellphone contracts and capping of roaming rates in its new wireless code, have won praise from consumer advocates. It is also widely credited for pressuring the wireless industry to create a national stolen smartphone registry and for conducting an investigation that spurred carriers to slash their international roaming rates in recent months.

Ordinary Canadians have also become more involved in regulatory proceedings through the use of social media sites, “flash” conferences and evening sessions for some public hearings. Last year’s public consultations on the wireless code, for instance, included more than 5,000 participants, including individual consumers. Some participated via Skype.

“It’s funny, you wouldn’t think it’s that big a deal. But for the technical people, for the legal people, there were issues that had to be sort of worked through – whether Skype was going to be okay or not,” Ms. Motzney says. “ And at one point, I remember being in a meeting … and saying: ‘Okay, either you figure this out or I am bringing my laptop and commissioners can gather around and they can watch the guy on the laptop because we’re going to make this happen.’ ”

She is also eager to demystify the industry’s lingo, which includes “arcane” terms such as forbearance (to refrain from regulating) and broadcast distribution undertakings (TV service providers such as cable and satellite companies), to encourage more people to participate.

Not only are Canadians more vocal at public hearings, but their views are “being taken more seriously” by the commission, says John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, an Ottawa-based consumer group. Still, he suggests the CRTC could do more if it is serious about remaining relevant.

For instance, he says it could translate its website into minority languages to reflect the changing face of the Canadian consumer. And while the CRTC has largely opted to take a hands-off approach to consumer-price regulation of wireless and high-speed Internet services, they ought to tackle the issue of affordability for low-income Canadians, Mr. Lawford adds. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has established programs to provide discounted wireless and home Internet services to the poorest of the poor.

“I think the wireless code did a big job in saying that they [the CRTC] are there for the average person. I think rejecting Bell-Astral the first time around got people on the radar and going ‘Oh, they’re willing to stand up to big companies,’” Mr. Lawford says, referring to a 2012 media deal that was under the purview of Ms. Motzney’s team.

(Bell’s parent company, BCE Inc., eventually obtained the CRTC’s permission to buy Astral Media in 2013 but with stricter conditions. BCE owns a 15-per-cent stake in The Globe and Mail.)

Appointed to her role on Oct. 1, 2012, Ms. Motzney also heads up the CRTC’s consumer affairs and strategic policy sector. Prior to joining, she served in senior positions at Public Safety Canada, Canadian Heritage, Industry Canada and Health Canada, tackling issues ranging from international affairs to copyright policy to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Ms. Motzney’s holds a BA in financial and administrative studies, along with a master of business administration. But what’s really prepared her for the rigours of her new role, aside from a binder labelled “Telecom 101” in her office, is her own experience of being an angry consumer.

In the two weeks preceding our interview, she complained about her TV service but her previous grievances have also targeted other services including Internet and home phone. “In times, all of the above,” she says with a grin, adding that one of her peeves is the lack of clarity of what’s in a bundle.

“What am I actually getting? Because a lot of times, there is a promotion for this, there is a promotion for that. If you take this and that, you get a discount on this … It all started with HBO for free, I must confess. I took the three months and I was sucked into the vortex.”

Consumers, she adds, expect their problems will be solved right away, and not just when a complaint is escalated. That’s because Canadian households spend, on average, about $185 a month on communications services, according to CRTC data.

Even so, she dismisses the suggestion that Canadians, despite their penchant for grumbling about telecom and cable companies, are complacent consumers.

“They’re reasonable. They think about, ‘Yeah, okay, we need to pay a certain amount for things, for sure. Companies need to make money.’ I’m surprised at how many people I’ve seen in their comments and in discussions are very reasonable towards the companies,” she says. “But what they don’t like, they don’t accept, is not being listened to. Not being given the information. And not being, in a way, taken seriously.”

It is a warning that equally applies to the CRTC.

“There’s a healthy number of people who are saying, ‘Let’s abolish the CRTC and the CBC’ … But we’re still getting constructive, thoughtful comment,” Ms. Motzney says.

She later adds: “You know, if people didn’t believe that their comments mattered, they wouldn’t bother. So, you know, we have to earn that trust. So, it is not going to happen in the first year. It’s got to be real consistent change. It’s gotta stick.”

© Globe and Mail