Canada has a well-earned reputation for some of the highest wireless prices in the world with numerous comparative studies finding that consumers pay relatively high prices for low amounts of data. There are obviously many factors behind pricing, but for many consumers the top line issue is how much does the wireless service cost and how much data do I get? Rewheel Research, a Finland based consultancy, has been at the forefront of pricing comparisons with extensive analysis of mobile data pricing in countries around the world. Its reports have often called out Canada, recently noting that prices are “a world apart” from more competitive markets. With Canadian telco giant Telus commissioning a study to challenge the Rewheel research, I’m joined this week on the Lawbytes podcast by Antonios Drossos, managing partner of the firm, who talked to me from Helsinki about their findings, what lies behind Canada’s wireless pricing, and the Telus-backed study.
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The CRTC’s low-cost data-only plan decision released yesterday was as unsurprising as it was uninspired. Under CRTC Chair Ian Scott, the Commission has abandoned any pretense of consumer focus, reverting to the days when Canadians perceived the regulator as a guardian of industry interests. The low-cost data-only decision, which is ostensibly designed to address a serious gap in affordable wireless services, will do little to solve the problem. Indeed, even the CRTC admitted that “none of the revised plans on their own would necessarily be enough to fill the gap identified by the Commission with respect to lower-cost data-only plans.” Those revised plans, which CRTC largely supported, would be laughably uncompetitive in most developed countries (as one expert noted yesterday, $30 for 1 GB is not a low cost data plan).
Few policy issues have proven as frustrating as the state of Canadian wireless pricing. For the better part of a decade, Conservative and Liberal governments have grappled with overwhelming evidence that Canadian consumers pay some of the highest prices for wireless services in the world. The solution has always seemed obvious: more competition. Yet despite repeated efforts to nudge the market and regulator toward a more competitive environment, the needle has barely moved.
My Globe and Mail op-ed notes that the latest failed effort was sparked by Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains’ June 2017 request to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to reconsider a decision on how regional and smaller wireless companies access wholesale roaming services from larger providers.
The CRTC has released its much-anticipated re-consideration ruling on how regional and smaller wireless companies access wholesale roaming services from larger providers. By sending a previous CRTC decision back to the Commission for re-consideration, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains signalled the government’s hope that the competitiveness problems in the Canadian wireless sector – consumers still pay some of the highest rates in the world – could be addressed through mandating access for new competitors on a wholesale basis. The Commission reviewed its earlier decision and basically said thanks, but no thanks, keeping the key policy elements unchanged.
Earlier this year, the Liberal government granted approval for the merger between BCE and MTS, eroding the competitive wireless market in Manitoba. In response, I argued in the Globe and Mail:
The Conservative government was criticized for failing to fix Canada’s uncompetitive wireless market, but at least it recognized the problem and did not shy away from challenging the Big Three. By contrast, Mr. Bains was faced with a sure thing – higher wireless prices for consumers and a less competitive, innovative marketplace – and blinked. Unless there are some new pro-competitive policies on wireless yet to come, the approval of the BCE-MTS merger guarantees that the government’s innovation strategy will start with a weak foundation.
It turns out, there was more to come. This week, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains put the wireless market back in the spotlight with a speech that left little doubt that the Liberal government has reached the same conclusion as its predecessor, namely that the Canadian wireless market continues to be marked by insufficient competition leading to high prices, low adoption rates, and a lack of affordability for consumers with low household income.