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How Much Do You Trust Canada's Wireless Giants?

The Big Three keep waving off new measures to foster greater competition.

By Michael Geist 8 Oct 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Michael Geist, whose column runs weekly on The Tyee, holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at michaelgeist.ca.

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Despite all the soothing words from firms, Canadian wireless prices still among the highest in the G7. Phone user image: Shutterstock.

Fresh off the contentious hearing on the future of television regulation, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) jumped back into the fire last week with a hearing on the wireless market that focused on whether changes are needed to the wholesale market to improve competition.

The Big Three -- Bell, Telus and Rogers -- unsurprisingly oppose new measures, arguing that the commission should reject the Competition Bureau's independent finding that there are competition concerns along with the smaller players and consumer groups that support new regulations. Instead, they argue that Canadians can trust that the market is already competitive and that reforms would reduce investment and harm the quality of the networks.

If that message evokes a sense of déjà vu, perhaps that is because it is seemingly always a matter of trust when it comes to Canadian wireless services.

Trust us, said the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) in 2000, when concerns were raised about marketplace competition. "The Canadian wireless market has been competitive from the outset," assured the industry association.

Trust us, said Rogers Wireless in 2004 as it made the case for merging with MicroCell and reducing the number of major wireless competitors from four to three. The merger would leave Canada with only one GSM provider, but it will not substantially lessen or prevent competition, the company claimed.

Trust us, said the wireless carriers in 2006 as the then-new Conservative government acquiesced to telecom lobbying by introducing a new policy direction for the CRTC to rely on market forces to the maximum extent feasible. The directive has been invoked each time the CRTC considers new regulatory measures.

Trust us, said the wireless carriers in 2007 when the government began considering a spectrum set-aside to allow for new entrants into the marketplace. Telus maintained that there is no need for a set-aside in "vigorously competitive" market, while Rogers characterized the new entrants as "all-time corporate welfare bums."

Trust us, said the wireless providers in 2008 when the government considered rules such as tower sharing and domestic roaming agreements alongside the new entrant spectrum set-aside. The companies argued that there was no need for the policy measures, which it said were contrary to reliance on market forces. In 2014, the CRTC concluded that Rogers had for years included unfair clauses in their domestic roaming agreements.

Trust us, said Bell in 2010 when it argued against relaxing foreign investment restrictions in the telecommunications market. The company claimed that there was no problem accessing foreign capital and no need for reforms based on "ill-defined problems."

Trust us, said the wireless carriers, when concerns about unfair marketing were raised. In 2010, the CRTC settled a major do-not-call case against Bell, with the company agreeing to pay $1.3 million over unauthorized telemarketing calls from independent providers selling Bell services.

Trust us, said the CWTA as provinces began in 2011 to introduce enforceable consumer protection codes for wireless services. A non-binding code of conduct is sufficient, it argued. By 2013, the CRTC had created a national wireless code in response to consumer frustration with lengthy contracts and locked phones.

Trust us, said the wireless carriers, when eyebrows were raised over advertising claims. In 2010, the Competition Bureau brought an action against Rogers over its advertising which led to a federal court ruling that ordered the company to pay $500,000 in penalties over the failure to perform adequate testing to substantiate its claims. Meanwhile, Bell paid a $10-million penalty to the Competition Bureau for misleading advertising in 2011.

Trust us, said the wireless companies when privacy advocates raised fears about the collection and use of customer information. In 2013, the Privacy Commissioner of Canada experienced a major increase in complaints, largely attributed to Bell's customer monitoring and profiling habits.

For years, the Big Three have used the same message to consistently oppose new measures aimed at fostering greater competition. With Canadian wireless prices still among the highest in the G7, Canadian consumers hope they can trust the government and CRTC to take action.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech

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