Mr. Speaker, this bill, which seeks to amend the Bell Canada Act, repeals section 7 of that act. The purpose of this change is to allow Bell Canada to hold a broadcasting licence and to compete directly with cable distributors. Let us not forget that section 7 dates back to 1968.
The government announced its intention to amend the Bell Canada Act last August with the release of the Minister of Industry's policy on convergence. This policy allows cable distributors and telephone companies to compete with each other in their basic operations.
Bell and its partners at Stentor will be able to provide broadcasting services, as soon as the government has regulated competition with respect to local telephone services, including rates, so that cable distributors and other companies will be able to set up competitive local telephone services. This convergence of technologies prompted the Minister of Industry to state, and I quote: "The real winners are consumers, who will ultimately have a choice in who provides their services".
This government policy on convergence is an integral part of the federal plans respecting the development of Canada's information highway, as described in the report tabled by the Minister of Industry last May, entitled "Building the Information Society: Moving Canada into the 21st Century".
Has the federal government kept or will it keep its promise to protect Quebec's and Canada's interests in developing the information highway? These are important issues, on which I will try to shed some light and find some answers. It should be remembered that the first reading of this bill goes back to October 29, 1996.
To start with, I will talk about convergence. As I said earlier, this bill is the result of the report entitled "Building the Information Society: Moving Canada into the 21st Century", which was made public on May 23 of last year. The Minister of Industry informed us in this regard that a convergence policy would soon be developed. On August 6, 1996, the Minister of Industry and the Minister of Canadian Heritage unveiled their so-called convergence policy.
This policy set the stage for competition between telephone companies and cable distributors in their respective areas. This policy prompted the Minister of Industry to announce in a September 19 press release that, and I quote: "The real winners are consumers, who will ultimately have a choice in who provides their services". If I take the liberty of quoting this press release, it is precisely because we are still waiting to see the benefits for consumers.
On the other hand, the Minister of Canadian Heritage said on August 6, in a news release, that they had "decided, concerning Quebec Telephone and BC Tel, to change the foreign ownership rule so that these two big companies serving British Columbia and Eastern Quebec can take part in the competitive market of communications systems just like any other telephone company". Hence, the Minister of Canadian Heritage agreed with the Bloc Quebecois, that wanted the government to safeguard the vested rights of these two companies.
In fact, strictly speaking, Quebec Telephone and BC Tel are foreign owned companies. GTE, a U.S. company, has a 51 per cent stake in Quebec Telephone. We know, however, that Quebec Telephone is deemed to be a Quebec company because its headquarters are in Quebec, it is managed by Quebecers and French is the only working language of employees. It was becoming imperative, considering convergence, to adapt the rule to give more freedom to Quebec Telephone.
It has been six months since the heritage minister made this statement on the changes to the orders regulating Quebec Telephone and BC Tel. During the first reading debate on this bill, my colleague, the member for Rimouski-Témiscouata said, and I quote: "We are concerned that this bill was tabled without any order being made regarding Quebec Telephone and BC Tel".
My colleague from Rimouski-Témiscouata went on to say: "Madam Speaker, I ask you to remind the government that it would be greatly appreciated if the order was made before the final vote on this bill, so as to give equal treatment to all telephone companies."
Today, as the House is dealing with this bill to amend the Bell Canada Act, have the orders been made? No, they have not. So I took upon myself to check with a few people in the know at Industry and at Canadian Heritage and I was assured that the drafting of these orders would be completed in the very near future.
We can only thank my colleague, the member for Rimouski-Témiscouata, for her hard work in favour of the rights of Quebec Telephone and indeed of the people in Quebec who are serviced by this excellent company.
I will now go back to the claims made by the industry minister, this unabashed advocate of unfettered competition. As I mentioned before, he said, and I will repeat it to show how wrong he is, that the real winners of convergence, or competition, will be the consumers.
Let us look at the real consequences we have been seeing for some time now. The deregulation of telecommunications started about ten years ago, but the CRTC authorized competition in long distance services only in 1992. This measure put an end to a long standing tradition of monopoly in telecommunications. That decision was supposed to generate significant savings for the consumers. But what happened in fact?
As shown in the report on long distance savings by the coalition for affordable telephone services, filed in February 1996, most residential subscribers of companies that are members of Stentor have enjoyed no substantial reduction in their long distance bills since the CRTC opened up the area to competition in 1992.
Let us look at page 2 of the coalition's report; it reads as follows: "Last December, the members of the Stentor group convinced the
federal government that they should be allowed to keep the increases and not have to reduce basic rates. If residential subscribers remain customers of Stentor for long distance services, they will pay no less than $700 million in 1996 and 1997, and over a ten-year period up to $4.5 billion", an amount that would go to the telephone companies without giving the subscribers our honourable industry minister referred to the benefit of discounts on long distance calls they should have received according to all the promises we have heard. The Coalition concludes that this is unfair.
The coalition goes on to say that long distance rates have gone down, but significantly so only in the case of wholesale users, mainly large corporations.
Now about local telephone rates. In ruling 94-19, the CRTC announced that it would, among other things, authorize a rebalancing of rates between long distance and local services and would therefore allow three increases of $2 each in the monthly basic service rate over the next three years. In exchange, the telecommunications companies would commit to reducing the long distance bills of residential subscribers and small and medium size businesses by the same amount.
However, Bell Canada and the seven other telecommunications companies that are members of the Stentor group objected to this restriction and filed a petition with the government asking that the restriction be withdrawn.
Obviously, and unfortunately, the Minister of Industry responded favourably to the expectations of the Stentor Group by maintaining a portion of the increase in local service charges, i.e. $2 in 1996, $2 in 1997, with a $2 reassessment in 1998, while allowing long distance charges to continue to be dictated by so-called competition in the marketplace.
Yet, public notice 95-49, tabled by the CRTC on November 22, 1995, that is before the government's rejection of rulings 94-19 and 95-21, states, among other things, that "the CRTC feels local rate increases, over and above the ones that would result from the rate rebalancing referred to in ruling 95-21, raise concerns about the maintaining and affordability of local services". The Minister of Industry does not seem to share these concerns, since his only policy is a belief in uncontrolled competition.
Paradoxically, while consumers could look forward to an increase in local rates and no decrease in long distance rates, the president of Bell Canada told Le Devoir on December 21, 1995 that this government decision would not result in a reduction in costs or maintaining the same rates for consumers but in a 1 per cent increase in the yield on shareholders' assets for 1996.
The Fédération nationale des associations de consommateurs du Québec, also known as FNACQ, said in the same article that Canadian households would have to pay more than one billion dollars over the next three years in increases in local rates so the telephone companies could make the desired profits.
An analyst with FNACQ, Marie Vallée, added that the CRTC's original decision would have led to the first substantial decrease in low and medium volume long distance rates for residential users and small businesses. We now know that the exact opposite is happening.
On September 6 last year, Bell made a new submission to the CRTC regarding residential services. This submission was in two parts. The first part concerned updating the telephone network for about 490,000 customers in Quebec and Ontario. The second part proposed compressing the rate scale from 19 levels to 11, which would result in an average increase of $1.11 for 850,000 Quebec households.
This request by Bell Canada has just been approved by the CRTC. As regards the $2 increases already announced for 1996 and 1997, it seems to me the government could be more attuned to customers' need for affordability, but it did nothing.
Not only are Mr. and Mrs. ordinary consumer affected, business rates are affected as well. In the spring of 1996, Bell Canada submitted a proposal to the CRTC to harmonize the rates paid by business customers, in other words, another rate increase. According to Bell, business customers in small communities, that is customers in rural communities, will have to pay between $44 and $54 for their lines, whereas businesses in major centres will pay between $39 and $44 only. The increase would take effect in July 1997.
If we are trying to tell small business to move out of the rural community to the city, we could not put it better. What a poor message to be sending to an economy that wants nothing more than to get back on track.
In its press release of September 11, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business indicated that the Bell Canada telephone company had justified its application by alleging that small businesses outside Montreal and Toronto were subsidized and, therefore, not paying their fair share of the real costs of such lines.
However, Catherine Swift, president of that organization, responded that only a minority of businesses were getting such subsidies and that last August's rate increases had in fact eliminated these subsidies.
As for the vice-president of the federation from Quebec, Pierre Cléroux, he said that small businesses are the biggest job creators,
that several of them had a precarious status, and that such an increase in telephone rates would affect not only their performance, but could even threaten them in some cases.
I would now like to tell the House and the public which costs will affect some ridings. I hope that the constituents who are watching us today will draw the obvious conclusion regarding the government's concern about protecting the rights of consumers as opposed to its eagerness to meet the endless, insatiable needs of large businesses.
Let us talk about the riding of Sherbrooke. Bell Canada's application in the riding of the leader of the Conservative Party represents a 50.8 per cent increase for the city of Sherbrooke alone.
In Laval West, the monthly fee for a business line will rise from $42.20 to $54.75, or a 21.1 per cent increase.
In Brome-Missisquoi, rates will go up by 32.8 per cent in Clarenceville and 50 per cent in Magog. The people of Bedford, Bromont, Cowansville, Dunham, Farnham, Frelighsburg, Henryville and Sutton are looking at increases of between 60 and 62.5 per cent.
In Gatineau-La Lièvre, the increases will amount to 41.8 per cent in Thurso, 52.2 per cent in St-Pierre-de-Wakefield, and 50.3 per cent in Buckingham; and in Gatineau, each line will cost $63.20 per month instead of $38.75, a 63 per cent increase.
In Hull-Aylmer, a riding represented by the minister responsible for the Outaouais, rates will increase by 41.3 per cent in Hull and 63.1 per cent in Aylmer.
In Pontiac-Gatineau-Labelle, the municipality of Luskville will see the cost of business lines rise by 41.9 per cent, while Maniwaki and other municipalities in the area will be facing a 60.1 per cent increase. Chelsea will be one of the hardest hit in Quebec, with business line rates rising from $38.75 to $68.80, or a 77.5 per cent increase.
In Saint-Maurice, the venerable riding of Saint-Maurice, the people of Grand-Mère and Shawinigan are facing a 50 per cent increase.
As you can see, small businesses outside the greater Montreal and Toronto areas will suffer losses amounting to $115 million per year if the CRTC approves Bell Canada's proposed rate increases for 1997.
I regret to say that this government fails to realize that unhampered, unrestricted competition is not in the interest of consumers.
We are anxiously waiting to see what the government will do once the CRTC renders its decision regarding Bell Canada's application to raise tariffs for business lines.
As I pointed out earlier, the government claims that consumers and businesses will benefit from this competition. Unfortunately, the facts prove just the opposite.
Instead of using their own money to invest in modernization, telecommunications companies pass most of the cost on to the consumers, this with the blessing of the industry minister, who seems to wash his hands of it. Worse yet, the poorest consumers and those living outside large urban centres are the hardest hit. The Minister of Industry can no longer afford not to be involved.
While the re-balancing of tariffs is necessary in a competitive environment, the government should show leadership in order to alleviate the negative impact of thses actions by proposing stopgap measures for low income people and for small and medium size businesses in rural or semi-rural areas.
There are elements of solutions. The Bloc Quebecois has already mentioned them to the government and it will do it again now. The Bloc Quebecois is very interested in solutions proposed by the federation of consumers' associations and by the National Anti-Poverty Organization.
These groups propose to first set a monthly rate ceiling of $15 for the basic service provided to households that have confirmed, through a self-certification process, as is done in California for example, that their income is below the poverty line. The whole process would be based on a universal telecommunications access fund. These moneys would come from a supplement charged to the ultimate user of telecommunications services. The providers of telecommunications services would be responsible for collecting these moneys and transferring them to the fund. In return, the fund would compensate companies providing the service to the poor.
In the case of small and medium size businesses located in the regions, the purpose of the fund would be to ensure a sharing of access and maintenance costs, which are higher in the regions than in urban areas. The fund would be financed through a contribution paid by companies providing telecommunications services.
Again, the government has yet to act upon the proposals made by these organizations. Convergence is here to stay, it is a technological fact we can no longer avoid. It is part of the government strategy concerning the information highway.
As we indicated before, in the telecommunications area, the government's commitment to defend the interest of the consumers is too often swiftly dismissed in favour of the interest of telecommunication companies, and the government's record as regards the information highway is no exception to that rule.
You have to understand that the federal strategy concerning the information highway seems to promote measures supporting telecommunications, such as personal communications services, local
multipoint communications systems, multimedia services via satellites, direct broadcast satellites and broadcaster digitizing.
On the other hand, the protection of personal information, copyright and privacy, and measures relating to offensive content, child pornography, production of francophone content, affordability, accessibility and universality of these services seem to be low on the priority list.
The federal strategy with respect to the information highway is incomplete. It is being doled out bit by bit by the Minister of Industry, despite extensive, in-depth studies by various levels of government.
Despite the CRTC report on competition and culture on Canada's information highway tabled a good year and a half ago, despite the final report by the information highway advisory council tabled over a year ago, despite the many departmental committees on which public servants toil away and without the benefit of a pre-study by a standing committee of the House of Commons-other than the Committee on Canadian Heritage that received evidence on more general issues-and despite the Minister of Industry's constant reminders of the need for urgent action, the minister has shown himself quite unable to define concrete and viable orientations for the more sensitive areas of the information highway.
To get a hint of the minister's lack of insight, you only have to review the document he has just released. Everyone was expecting the federal government's action plan on the information highway. Instead, we got a report recapping the progress made on the information highway. The Minister of Industry told us this was a progress report on Canada's transition toward the information society and the government's response to the recommendations made by the Information Highway Advisory Council in September 1995.
The Bloc Quebecois reacted strongly to the tabling of this so-called strategy. Here are the main points that we condemned the report for at the time.
While the report is a good analysis of the problem, it has nothing to do with the political intention of a thoughtful government that is saying it is urgent to move forward. The report denies the existence of the Quebec culture by making it an element of the multicultural diversity of Canada. The report covers all the technological aspects of the information highway, but leaves out the social aspects entirely.
The report sanctions the hopes of the advisory committee on the information highway, which reflect a federal intrusion in provincial jurisdictions and which ultimately sanction new duplications of provincial programs. Finally, the report describes the majority of problems related to the information highway, but totally postpones dealing with the solutions to these problems.
You will have understood that Bill C-57 in itself is a modernization of an act that had now to be modernized. But the government could not examine where this bill will lead the Quebec people and the Canadian people without checking at the same time the guidelines that are established to ensure that everything is in the best interests of the people. And the people are also the consumers. They work, for the most part, for small and medium size businesses.
This is why I stressed the inconveniences currently experienced by individuals and by small corporations in the context of this convergence, this implementation of the information highway.
We too support progress. Therefore, the Bloc Quebecois must support this bill. However, as I said, and I will say it again, the Bloc Quebecois does not support progress at any cost, progress at the expense of the most vulnerable ones, progress at the risk of killing our small and medium size businesses, particularly in rural areas.
I would like to conclude by making three recommendations. We ask the Liberal government to exercise diligence to make sure that Québec-Téléphone and BC Tel get a satisfactory agreement so that they, like other telecommunications companies, have an opportunity to offer their services in the context of the convergence of telecommunications.
Second, we ask the Liberal government to fulfil the commitment made in its red book, in the chapter on small and medium size businesses, to the effect that the federal government must contribute to the creation of a climate that promotes economic development. Once the CRTC renders its decision on rate increases for business lines, this government will show us whether it intends to fulfil its promise or to forget it like so many other ones.
Third, we ask this government to stop the mad dash for the information highway, something that is less and less affordable to consumers, small and medium size businesses, and those who live in rural areas.