Mr. Speaker, I certainly appreciate the opportunity to stand and represent the good people of Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola.
When I found out we were going to be debating telecommunications policy here today, I was very excited. Accessing services and the cost of those services are barriers that Canadians from coast to coast to coast experience every single day. When I speak to Canadians, cost of living is their number one concern. With the Liberal government's huge tax increases weighing them down, the added cost of a $100-a-month cell phone bill can be devastating. Canadians are struggling with affordability more now than ever and the Liberal government has just made it worse.
Yes, I was excited to talk about and debate real solutions and ideas about how we can support Canadians and make their lives more affordable. Then I read the NDP motion. This motion is typical New Democratic policy. It identifies a very real problem and then proposes terrible ideas to deal with it. This motion is full of ideas that are impractical at best and ruinous at worst.
Let us examine the motion and see how many of these proposals would only serve to hurt Canadians. My NDP colleague proposes a price cap for mobile phone bills. That would be a disastrous idea. Canadian mobile phone companies have to spend billions on new infrastructure every year to keep up with new technology and new data demands. They must spend hundreds of millions of dollars on spectrum so they can offer services at all, not to mention the immense cost of bringing Canada into the 5G future we all desire. One report estimated well over $20 billion. If the government were to implement a price cap on mobile services, it would make these investments impossible.
We all want lower prices. In committee last week, I questioned a representative from the telecommunication industry about how we can lower prices and ensure we see the investments we need. The only solution is more free market, not less. I know that New Democrats prefer big government, bureaucratic ideas that only work in university classrooms and, I suppose, probably in their caucus room, but they do not work in the real world. We need to see more competition in the marketplace, more new entrants and smaller regional companies; and the existing big mobile companies are going to have to accept that fact. I want to make myself extremely clear. I am not defending the status quo. Clearly, data prices are too high in Canada. However, a top-down big-government price cap would only make things worse in the long run.
Regarding the second point on data caps, I agree with the sentiment. Like many Canadians, I also see the mobile phone plans available around the world that offer unlimited data plans. Unlimited data plans should be an attainable option for Canadians. However, mandating that is not the right policy. Again, only free market solutions will ensure we have the services we all demand. Canada has among the fastest mobile networks in the world, a testament to the amount of investment we have seen in our country. However, data usage is a challenge. Modern services like video streaming put a huge drain on network resources, and if everyone is using these services, it can bog down the connection speed. This is why I find it annoying when mobile phone companies advertise steaming sports in high definition on their networks. That activity is not really practical across the board under current circumstances.
In a future world, with 5G and Internet of things and all of the innovations those will bring, it is unavoidable that data caps will have to go. However, we are not there yet and we have to make sure the accessibility of the network is open to all Canadians. Therefore, the logical question is: Do I like data caps? Of course not; no one likes data caps, but forcing a big-government solution on the issue is not the right way to proceed.
Regarding the point on outrageous sales practices, let me start by saying that no one supports companies preying on people and using abusive practices. I question if an entire bill of rights is necessary when consumer protection rules already exist, but in principle, this is a point I believe there is widespread agreement on, and I would like to hear more from New Democrats as to exactly what that would entail.
Clearly, when the government put out its air passenger bill of rights, it was all marketing and, even now, on the implementation, when I talk to most Canadians about air travel, they want to know who is going to enforce it. They do not see the actual promise attached to the marketing. I would say, in this case, unless the NDP starts putting forward concrete proposals on how current legislation could be improved so that we deal with this, it is just marketing for a party that is quite low in the polls.
Sales practices that lie or misrepresent what a customer is agreeing to need to stop, and they need to stop now. The point in the motion that talks about spectrum is a great opportunity to speak about how the government is hurting rural Canadians with its 3,500 megahertz clawback. I asked the minister about this last week, and he did not deny that rural customers will lose service, and he even called it a “clawback” in this place. At least he gets points for being honest.
The 3,500 megahertz band is essential for ensuring Canadians can join the 5G future. We are not denying that at all. However, government policy that cuts off service to rural Canadians with no recourse is absolutely unacceptable.
The chair of the industry committee just spoke, and he talked about all the new technology that will help people in rural areas to access medical services. This policy eats away at that promise, because if those areas that have the least access are being clawed back spectrum that is necessary to run the service, these innovations, these abilities to offer medical services in rural areas, just will not happen.
Exactly how many people will be affected at this point remains unclear, but I asked a mobile fixed wireless company about the impacts during an industry committee meeting last week. The response it gave was that it would be significant.
The 3,500 megahertz band has been previously allocated to fix wireless for rural communities. Now that band is in major demand for 5G. The fact is that it is not the government's fault. International forces determine which bands should be used. However, what is the government's fault in this case is not addressing the fact that crucial rural infrastructure is now in conflict with extremely important new technologies.
Even if no one lost service from the clawback, and I think many will, repurposing the band to mobile without first finding an alternative for fixed rural wireless will stop rural providers from being able to acquire more spectrum to grow their business or to provide faster speeds.
We also need to be mindful that fixed wireless technology and the spectrum required to run it has allowed regional players to provide service to rural areas, which raises competition, which facilitates better prices.
This whole decision needs a rethink to ensure rural customers would not be left in the cold. However, over and over again, the Liberal government has proven it is not especially concerned with rural Canadians.
Looping back to the NDP suggestion within the motion, it is fundamentally flawed. Frankly, I am surprised that the NDP, a party that never saw a tax it did not like—well, except for when the B.C. NDP opposed the carbon tax—would oppose money flowing into general revenue. The NDP says that over $20 billion brought into government over the last number of years has been squandered. Do not get me wrong. The Liberal government has squandered much more than $20 billion. However, under a Conservative government, that revenue was used for health care, old age security, social transfers. I suppose the NDP does not think those things are important.
In principle, can spectrum auctions be done better? Absolutely; we can never stop working to make sure that government programs function better. Unfortunately with this motion, the NDP would clearly rather attack the previous Conservative government for funding health care and social services than find a workable solution.
Regarding rural broadband in general, this is a topic that every single Canadian needs to pay attention to, to work to find solutions. While the major mobile companies like to say that the vast majority of Canadians have good services, many do not and they are Canadians too.
I was very disappointed during a committee meeting last week when the member for Pontiac lamented the fact that the first phase of the CRTC rural broadband funding was only open to the territories. The needs of our northern brothers and sisters are immense, and if service even exists in the remote north, the cost would make most Canadians' heads spin.
Making sure that remote northern communities get a first crack at broadband funding is a positive move, but clearly at least one government member disagrees. To give him the benefit of the doubt, he is probably just frustrated because the government's connect to innovate program is such a disaster. This program was supposed to bring broadband to rural communities. Unfortunately, it has largely been a communications exercise in trying to get Liberal members good press.
Based on an Order Paper question from my colleague from Edmonton Riverbend, we learned that less than 10% of the funding promised and announced has actually gone out the door. This is a government of stalled and delayed infrastructure funding, so it should not come as a surprise, but the government at least seems to pretend to care about rural broadband.
It is not just me saying that the Liberal government has problems. The Auditor General declared last year that the connect to innovate program was poorly designed and did not get good value for money. Maybe that finding is why the government refuses to fund the Auditor General now.
There has been announcement after announcement with press releases, but no funding. I have a list of projects with start dates in 2017 and 2018 on which literally zero dollars have been spent. For Câble-Axion and Projet Redondance Estrie in Brome–Missisquoi, Quebec, the amount of money pledged was $119,000, but the money given to date is zero. For CoopTel, Quebec, again, with just over half a million dollars, to this date zero dollars have been paid. We also have Duclos & Michaud Télécom, projet Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec: Again, from over $1 million, the amount actually provided to date is zero. I could go on and on with these things right across this great country. It is absolutely shocking to see that a program designed and launched with so much fanfare still has not found its feet.
Canadians expect that their MPs show up with a cheque that maybe two years later might be cashed. It seems to me that the Liberal plan is to break ground on these projects this summer as a pre-election, taxpayer-funded media blitz. I asked the minister responsible if any projects announced already would be re-announced this summer, and she refused to say no. Now, as we know with the Liberal government and the SNC-Lavalin scandal, a denial often means yes. Therefore, a refusal to answer probably definitely means yes.
Now we need to have a real plan to deliver broadband services to all Canadians, no matter where they live, a plan that works with every single level of government to identify where and when we can get cable in the ground and people connected. We also have to work with the existing telecommunications companies, not to do what this motion does and simply attack them.
Earlier, an NDP member said she was concerned that small companies are being played down by the larger companies and that more competition is needed. The price cap, again, affects all companies, including small or regional players, and they have the least access to capital and the smallest footprint in terms of already existing infrastructure. Therefore, the New Democrats really need to figure out what they want to do and the mechanism they want to do it by.
Do not get me wrong, the big three are not innocent. Canadian mobile companies receive among the highest revenue per customer in the world, while claiming poverty. Over the last number of days, I have seen several things from various telecommunications companies that make it seem to Canadians like they do not take affordability seriously. The other day in a panel at an industry conference, one representative said that there is no price challenge because most Canadians have phones. This is a totally absurd statement and extremely unhelpful when we need everyone to work together. Just because most Canadians have a place to live, that does not mean there is no housing affordability crisis in much of the country.
Another statement that struck me as incredible was that Canadians cannot expect price drops because their demands on data are increasing. Now, taking it to the extreme, are we then to expect a $1,000 basic data bill when 5G rolls around? Prices have to come down, not data prices relative to what data cost 10 years ago, but real prices in real terms. The sector must take that seriously. Canadians are not an endless piggy bank. Despite all that, and despite how good it can feel to criticize the telecommunications sector, that would be absolutely zero towards connecting Canadians and lowering their bills. It is perhaps good politics, but bad policy.
This is a major challenge for everyone, and everyone must work together to get this done.
The motion contains ideas that would do nothing to address the structural problems in Canada, help rural and remote residents get connected, or ensure adequate competition.
In the NDP world, where the motion would be law, companies would never be able to build the capital needed to invest in facilities to connect more Canadians. There would never be 5G, or there would be 5G but it would happen in other places. We would see a continued flight of talent and capital to other regions. Young, aspiring creators and programmers, the people who want to create new systems and innovations, would just go to the places that allow them. Again, the NDP is putting a cap on all these plans.
The answer is not big government and less freedom. More economic freedom is what brings prosperity. More freedom in this space to adopt new technologies and push the envelope would allow Canadian innovators to stay in Canada, participate in our economy and help Canadians lead the field when it comes to the adoption of new technologies, particularly regarding the Internet of things.
We need more competition in that sector, not regulations that ensure no company will ever want to compete. We also need new investment, innovation and price caps.
We need only look to the 1970s line “Zap, you're frozen.” It is very easy for government to dictate a price. However, it is very difficult for those operating in the market to then be able to invest properly and make capital plans. It would run from small operators all the way up to the large ones.
I have never faulted NDP members for having their heart in the right place. They clearly have identified a problem. However, their solutions, I have to say, border on the absurd.
We have a New Democratic Party that thinks with its heart and a Prime Minister who wants to grow the economy from the heart out. Conservatives will use their heads to find good policy that ensures all Canadians can live a prosperous and successful life.
Canadians are drowning under the weight of the Liberal government's affordability crisis. A future Conservative government would ensure that people have more money in their pockets and more market choice, because that is what brings prices and costs down for everyone.
Again, it is an honour to rise on behalf of the good people of Central Okanagan—Similkameen—Nicola. I hope I have added some thought to the debate. I certainly appreciate that all of us come here with our strong ideas on how things should be. I know I have mine, and I am prepared to defend them. However, as we move forward, let us really focus on trying to find practical solutions.
Canadians do not care what is in our minds. They just want to be able to pay their bills and see their kids go to school, get good access to the latest health care, utilize technologies and be able to stay in Canada. Those are the things we should be focused on in our telecom policy, and a future Conservative government would ensure that Canadians can get ahead and will not simply tread water.