Telecommunications in Canada: Technology, Industry, and Government

Robert E. Babe

Variations on a Theme could well be a further subtitle to Robert Babe's book Telecommunications in Canada--the theme being the inability and reluctance of Canada's federal government to enact appropriate regulatory measures for the nation's telecommunications industries. Too much of federal policy-makers' thinking is imbedded in "misconception, even myth" (p. 4), Babe contends throughout his text, and the bases of such thinking are the twin themes (two of the myths) of "technological omnipotence and inexorability" (p. 252). The consequence of such a persuasion is that we tend to accept, too readily, such technological inevitability and ignore the fact that Canada's communications industries took shape and were developed "through the agency of and the struggle for human power" (p. 5). That truth, Babe contends, has often eluded both policy analysts and academics.

Babe's book is compelling reading, principally because he challenges the conventional wisdom which has linked Canada's destiny as a distinct society--culturally, economically, and politically--to her media-technological industries. And there is not any denying that that persuasion has existed for the past six decades, and is to be found in dozens of government studies and reports. However, the consequence of such a national policy, Babe points out, might well have been the opposite of what was intended--a "global consciousness" (p. 8) rather than the hoped-for domestic consciousness. In all, he asserts, policy formulation regarding the communication industries has not been planned carefully and too often policy frameworks have been put into place after the fact, "to justify or cope with what industrial power has already consummated" (p. 20).

Babe's own re-telling of what he terms "Federal-Provincial Highjinks" (p. 213) might well be identification of one of the principal reasons why telecommunications policies have been weak in the past: with competing jurisdictions, agreements about where the industries are headed and what purposes they should serve have been almost as elusive as federal-provincial agreements on Canada's constitution. Nevertheless, Babe's initial observation that technology as such does not have a life, growth, and development of its own is intact: the technology has depended upon human agents for support, and the interests of these agents have not always been consistent with the aspirations of a society to be identified as distinct from others. The arguments made by Bell Canada, for example, about the benefits of a monopoly as a preferred service for Canada in telephony and associated industries have grown frail, Babe contends, and he comments insightfully on the three "props" of Bell's stance: economies of scale; systemic integrity through end-to-end control; and service universality through system-wide cost averaging and cross-subsidization.

In supporting Unitel's successful challenge to compete with Bell's long-distance services, Ted Rogers, in a newspaper story, is reported to have claimed that monopolies do not change, they just become greater monopolies. The suspicion is harboured here that Babe would only have concurred with Rogers' description of present-day monopolies. He might also have added, although this is not attributable to Babe, that it takes one to know one.

One does not have to agree with Babe to appreciate his arguments about monopolies and the weaknesses of policy-makers in the face of rapidly-developing technologies. He is introduced in Telecommunications in Canada a clear and insightful statement about the development of Canada's telecommunication industries. It is his own perspective and he is consistent in his basic tenets. In this sense, the book possesses a natural unity. Babe's book introduces, logically and thoughtfully, a valuable statement that will undoubtedly serve as input in policy resolutions for the industry. (Bill C-62 is current forerunner for a new, and first Canadian Telecommunications Act.)

His challenge to the "mythic doctrines" of technological imperative and technological determinism cannot be ignored; nor can his assertion that the doctrines, by denying human responsibility, are then "most assuredly totalitarian ideologies, propagated by those who would relieve themselves of the burden of responsibility" (p. 258). In such thematic development in Telecommunications in Canada, Babe has made a marked and notable contribution to the Canadian literature in the field.



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