Telecommunications Carriers and the "Duty to Serve"

Article excerpt

Telephone companies share with other public utilities a common law duty to provide their services on demand, at a reasonable price, and without unreasonable discrimination. In Canada, this common law duty exists alongside statutory service obligations imposed on telecommunications carriers and regulatory policies promoting universal access to basic telecommunications services. Some argue that in the modern environment, where a wide range of telecommunications services is available on a near-universal basis from a profusion of suppliers, the duty to serve has become an anachronism and that carriers should now be relieved of such obligations. There are others, however, who caution that the elimination of the duty to serve might jeopardize the continuation of service to geographically remote areas and should therefore be retained. Still others advocate expanding the duty to include broadband in order to facilitate wider access to high-speed Internet services. The debates surrounding these issues reveal that there is no consensus about the scope of the duty to serve. This article seeks to clarify the parameters of the common law duty to serve and discusses how that duty interrelates with carriers' statutory service obligations and regulatory policies promoting universal service.

Les compagnies de telephone, comme d'autres entreprises de services publics, ont une obligation en common law de fournir leurs services sur demande, a un prix raisonnable et sans discrimination deraisonnable. Au Canada, cette obligation en common law coexiste avec les obligations de service prevues par la loi imposees aux entreprises de telecommunication et les politiques reglementaires faisant la promotion d'un acces universel aux services de telecommunication de base. Certains soutiennent que dans un environnement moderne, ou de facon quasi universelle une profusion de fournisseurs rend disponible une vaste gamme de services de telecommunication, l'obligation de service est devenue anachronique et que les fournisseurs devraient etre liberes de cette obligation. D'autres soutiennent cependant que l'elimination de l'obligation de service menacerait l'acces aux services dans les regions isolees et qu'il faut donc la maintenir. D'autres encore reclament d'etendre cette obligation pour inclure les services a large bande, qui faciliteraient l'acces Internet haute vitesse. Les debats qui entourent ces enjeux revelent qu'il n'y a pas de consensus sur la portee de l'obligation de service. Cet article vise d'abord a clarifier les parametres de l'obligation de service en common law. Ensuite, nous analyserons quels sont les liens entre cette obligation et les obligations prevues par la loi pour les fournisseurs de service, ainsi qu'avec les politiques reglementaires faisant la promotion d'un acces universel.

Introduction

I.    The Origins of the Common Law Duty
II.   The Scope of the Common Law Duty
      A. To Which Services Does the Duty Attach?
      B. Is There a Duty to Extend Service?
      C. Is There a Duty to Serve Where There Are
         Multiple Suppliers?
III.  The Common Law Duty to Serve and Regulation
      A. The Regulatory Framework
      B. Universal Service
      C. The Impact of Competition
Conclusions

Introduction

Telephone companies share with other public utilities a common law duty to provide their services on demand, at a reasonable price, and without unreasonable discrimination. This duty to serve places public utilities on a different footing than other commercial enterprises, which are for the most part free to contract with whom they choose on terms that are freely negotiated. In the case of telecommunications carriers, the common law duty to serve exists alongside statutory service obligations imposed on carriers by the Telecommunications Act (1) and regulatory policies promoting universal access to basic telecommunications services articulated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC or Commission). …