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    New Wireless Entrants Abandon CWTA Strategy of Delay, Dilute, or Defeat Competitiveness Initiatives

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    Thursday April 11, 2013
    The Canadian wireless sector was hit by a shock yesterday as the three major new entrants - Wind Mobile, Public Mobile, and Mobilicity - announced that they were withdrawing from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association. The companies argued that the CWTA has shown consistent bias in favour of Bell, Telus, and Rogers, the three incumbent providers. All three used strong language to emphasize their frustration with the CWTA, speaking of a "blatant disregard" for new entrants and failures to honour promises of fair representation. 

    The move is a major blow to the CWTA, which has long promoted itself as the voice of the industry. For example, during the recent CRTC consumer wireless code hearing, it opened by stating:

    CWTA represents virtually all of the major companies in Canada's wireless telecommunications ecosystem. Our members include wireless service providers, handset manufacturers, builders of network, infrastructure and numerous other companies that develop and produce products and services for the industry and for consumers.

    No longer.  So why the change? 

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    CRTC Pushes Bill of Rights for Consumers

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    Tuesday October 23, 2012
    Earlier this month, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission invited the public to help create a national code of conduct for wireless companies such as Bell, Rogers, and Telus. The consultation is expected to generate widespread interest, providing frustrated consumers with an outlet for grievances on lengthy contracts, problematic terms and conditions, exorbitant roaming costs, or onerous cancellation fees. 

    My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes the decision to embark on a national, enforceable code of conduct for wireless services supported by the wireless carriers represents a dramatic policy shift that was scarcely imaginable only a few years. Indeed, when then-Industry Minister Maxime Bernier pushed through a policy direction to the CRTC in 2006 aimed at limiting regulation by calling for "greater reliance on market forces", consumer-focused regulations were viewed as an impossibility. Consistent with the market-led approach, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association introduced a voluntary code of conduct in 2009 with no expectation of government regulation.

    The move toward new regulations provides a valuable lesson on the role that the provinces can play to jumpstart otherwise stagnating issues. In the case of wireless services, the introduction of provincial consumer protections geared specifically toward the wireless sector ultimately encouraged the carriers to drop their opposition to new regulation as they recognized that a uniform federal policy was preferable to the emerging piecemeal provincial framework.

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    Ontario Government Plans Consumer Protection Law for Wireless Services

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    Friday April 13, 2012
    The Ontario Government has announced plans to introduce new consumer protection legislation to increase transparency on wireless plans and to establish some contractual limitations. The wireless industry has indicated it would prefer a national code of practice. I wrote about the issue last year during the provincial election campaign.
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    Digital Issues Largely Missing From Ontario Election Campaign

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    Tuesday September 13, 2011
    Appeared in the Toronto Star on September 11, 2011 as Digital Issues Largely Missing From Ontario Election Campaign

    The Ontario election campaign kicked off last week with the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and NDP promoting their policy platforms and quickly jumping into debates on the economy, health care and education. While the dominance of those three issues is unsurprising, those Ontarians hoping for some discussion of digital policy were bound to be a bit disappointed.

    The Liberal platform references the importance of jobs in the technology and media sectors, but offers little else on the digital economy. The Progressive Conservatives are the only party to make a commitment to open government - their platform follows developments in many other jurisdictions that pledge to make government data more readily available for public use - but other digital issues are ignored. The NDP makes no reference to digital policies at all.

    The federal government tends to lead on digital policies, though its much-anticipated digital economy strategy is months overdue. Yet for constitutional reasons that grant the provinces jurisdiction over property and civil rights, many important issues fall to the provinces.

    For example, the federal government addresses most telecom issues including carrier regulation and spectrum allocation but many consumer protection concerns associated with wireless carriers falls to the provinces.  In recent months, both Quebec and Manitoba have moved forward with legislation to create consumer protections on cellphone contracts and locked devices.

    Similar concerns have been raised in Ontario. Last year, Ontario MPP David Orazietti introduced a private members bill that would have established a requirement to unlock devices if the consumer pays full price or once the contract expires.  Moreover, the bill identified a long list of disclosure requirements including the costs associated with service plans, advertisements, roaming charges, or when consumers are nearing their monthly cap. The bill also established the right to cancel a service contract with 30 days notice with a maximum liability of one-month service fee.  Despite clear public interest in the issue, the platforms of all three provincial parties are silent on the issue.

    Copyright is also a federal matter, but if the government moves forward with the digital lock rules discussed in the recently uncovered Wikileaks cables, the provincial governments should consider the significant consumer protection issues that are likely to follow.

    Most consumers know little if anything about digital locks and the limitations that may be placed on consumer entertainment products such as CDs, DVDs, video games, or ebooks. For many consumers, these digitally locked products are simply not fit for purpose - they may not play on their DVD player or permit usage that most would expect is permissible. Moreover, consumers frequently can't obtain a refund for their purchases as many retailers won't accept returns on opened CDs and DVDs and digital download services do not offer refunds to disgruntled downloaders.  Other countries have established specific consumer protections on digital lock use and it falls to the Canadian provinces to do the same.

    With privacy reform stalled at the federal level, there is an important role to play for provincial governments, yet the issue is not discussed by any of the three provincial parties. Several Canadian provinces including Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec have enacted broad-based privacy legislation. Ontario has not, raising the question of where the parties stand on developing provincial privacy protections that raise the bar by establishing tough penalties for violations and mandatory disclosures of privacy breaches.

    Internet access is yet another issue where a provincial voice is needed. As the federal government dithers, it may fall to the provinces to establish universal broadband initiatives.  Where do the three parties stand on broadband access, community wifi networks, or support for computer ownership for those who find it unaffordable?  

    Like most other digital policy issues in this campaign, seemingly none of the parties have much to say.

    Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.

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