Mr. Speaker, it is with great interest that I take part in this debate on Bill C-17, an act to amend the Telecommunications Act and the Teleglobe Canada Reorganization and Divestiture Act.
Telecommunications in Canada are in constant evolution. The standard communication networks are giving way to new technologies. Obviously, these new means of transmission through technological development also contribute to the globalization of trade.
In fact, state of the art communication services and technologies are leading to multiplication of trade outside the country. This new context presents a daunting challenge for Canada, that of maintaining its international competitiveness, despite the threats to its traditional industry share of investments.
The disappearance of technologies associated with natural monopolies and the restructuring of telecommunications and broadcasting activities to meet global, rather than national, requirements, calls for a reform of government policies. These must now set out new ground rules for telecommunications and broadcasting corporations.
The disappearance of the traditional boundaries between telecommunications, cable television and informatics heralds the convergence of information transmission services on a single information highway. We are witnessing the disappearance of the natural monopoly with the introduction of indirect competition, which has come about primarily through the new transmission technologies; direct competition will require complete deregulation.
In 1993, international communications traffic reached 47.7 billion minutes. This represents barely nine more minutes per person on a global scale, but 46 minutes if high income earning nations alone are considered.
The impact of this bill on the everyday lives of citizens will take the form of new job creation, since our industry is strong and can easily compete internationally.
According to the Federal Communication Commission, another advantage will be an 80% drop in international telephone rates in a few years. This bill therefore has two objectives.
The first is to bring Canadian legislation into line with Canada's international undertakings as a signatory to the February 1997 World Trade Organization's services agreement, commonly known as GATT. The agreement takes effect January 1, 1998. The bill's second objective is to bring Canadian legislation into line with the new competitive context in the telecommunications industry.
By signing the telecommunications agreement, Canada undertook to eliminate the remaining monopolies, those held by Teleglobe and Telesat. It undertook to liberalize international call handling. It undertook to completely liberalize the regime for ownership of mobile communications satellite systems and, finally, to lift the restrictions on increased foreign ownership in Teleglobe Canada. In addition, ownership of international submarine cable landings in Canada was liberalized and a reference document setting out regulatory principles for all signatory countries was approved.
With this bill, the government is giving more powers to the CRTC, as can be seen in sections 1, 2, 3 and 7. Among its many powers, the CRTC will be able to issue telecommunications licences and to suspend or revoke a licence for non-compliance with the act.
As for section 46.6, it provides for the implementation by the CRTC of a contribution mechanism, because the CRTC itself recognizes that a contribution fund must be created to provide services in regions where it is more expensive to do so. This provision gives the CRTC legal authority to do this. The fund will compensate the companies offering basic services for their actual costs. The Bloc Quebecois believes there is an urgent requirement to design a reliable and transparent mechanism for supporting companies and their customers in regions where costs are higher.
With the new powers provided the CRTC under this bill, the government is ensuring that practices in Canada are in line with those abroad so that a clear and consistent process can be created to identify the players in the industry. We hope that the CRTC will now be able to implement rules that guarantee a level playing field for everyone.
As for the Minister of Industry, he now has authority under sections 4 and 5 of this bill to issue licences for international submarine cables, and, under section 8, to certify that telecommunications equipment is in compliance with Canadian standards. It is also important to note that the government is responsible for the full implementation of Canada's telecommunications policy. It must ensure that all Quebeckers and all Canadians have equal access to telecommunications services. That is why the Minister of Industry has the power to issue directives to the CRTC.
Finally, the Bloc Quebecois agrees in principle with this bill, which flows naturally from the telecommunications agreement. However, a number of questions arise: What will be the real benefits of these new initiatives for taxpayers? The Bloc Quebecois believes that hearings are urgently required to define what is meant by basic telecommunications services. What does the “affordability” of a basic service mean? For some, affordability is determined on the basis of the subscriber penetration rate, but this is not a significant measurement because it does not take the fall in the standard of living into account.
The telephone has become an essential commodity. Many people are prepared to cut elsewhere, for example in the food budget, to have this commodity. Therefore, the Bloc Quebecois thinks there is an urgent need to determine what low income customers can afford to pay for this basic telecommunications service.
Despite the liberalization of telecommunications, it is essential that these services remain affordable for everyone.
There is also another question that we consider critical: What about privacy? There is great public concern, and rightly so, about the impact of this on the release of personal information. This bill opens the door to globalization in the area of communications, and the government has still not fulfilled its commitment regarding a law to protect personal information in the private sector and at the networking level. The population is still waiting, and there may be very serious incidents if the government waits too long.
As far as privacy is concerned, both for the private and the public sector, and where linkage is concerned as well, Quebec is proud to have been both a laboratory and a model for this. I am therefore suggesting, on behalf of the Bloc Quebecois, that the federal government do its homework and follow the example of the Quebec legislation which protects both privacy and linkage. Particularly after passage of this bill, data linkage must be protected by legislation.
In April 1997, the parliamentary human rights committee called for adoption of legislation, but we are still waiting. On September 18, 1996, the Minister of Justice promised it by the year 2000, but we are still waiting. The Minister of Industry made a commitment to establish a legislative framework to protect personal data in his Canadian strategy for the information era, recognizing that voluntary compliance with a framework was not enough, but we are still waiting. This leaves us with the impression that the minister is bowing to the business lobby, which would like to have a more flexible framework.
Also related to privacy, it appears that the new technologies will develop telephone communications between individuals and not places. These new satellite technologies will be able to locate individuals wherever they are. Thus this becomes a control over individuals and society. We must go beyond the industrial aspect and an analysis of profitability, for it is appropriate as well to question the values our society wishes to preserve.
In the field of telecommunications, the public is often left out of the debate, given the complexity of the subject, and I can understand this. That is why the advisory committee on the information highway suggested, not all that long ago, that the federal government strike a national advisory committee on access reporting to the Ministers of Industry and Heritage and mandated to give advice on the new requirements relating to access and services deemed essential in a knowledge-based society. This advisory committee should be composed of equal numbers of members from industry and the non-profit sector.
In closing, this bill is an opening toward the liberalization of communications, something which is universally applauded. Nevertheless, the Bloc Quebecois will ensure that these questions receive clear and formal responses, as well as lead to precise, concrete and immediate actions.