Can Canada’s Failed Wireless Policy Be Saved?

This is wireless week in Canada with the CRTC unveiling its consumer wireless code on Monday and Industry Minister Christian Paradis scheduled to make an important wireless announcement on Tuesday morning in Ottawa. In anticipation of the focus on telecom issues, my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) assessed whether Canada’s failed wireless policy can be saved.

The column opened by noting that earlier this year, Industry Minister Christian Paradis released the Canadian government’s strategy to increase competition in the wireless sector. Acknowledging the challenges, Paradis promised to “continue to pay close attention to what is going on and to make sure that our policies reflect the fact that we want to achieve the goal of having more competition.”

If Paradis is still paying attention, he will know that the government’s wireless competition strategy now lies in tatters. Telus has agreed to purchase Mobilicity, one of the new entrants that was supposed to provide greater competition. Rogers has agreements in place to purchase previously set-aside spectrum from Shaw and Quebecor. Meanwhile, rumours abound that the remaining new entrants will be scooped up by the big three incumbent providers in short order.

Paradis recently characterized the Canadian wireless pricing as “middle average”, but it appears that the situation is about to become even worse for Canadian consumers. The incumbents, who bet that the new entrants would be little more than a short-term blip in the market, kept their prices steady, deploying cheaper flanker brands to compete for cost-conscious consumers. If the new entrants exit the market, most analysts expect prices to quickly rise.

The question now facing Paradis and the government is what can be done to address competition concerns that affect consumers and business alike.

The starting point may be to acknowledge that the last round of policy initiatives failed. A spectrum set-aside in 2008 opened the door to new entrants, but enormous barriers remained. These included the slow relaxation of foreign investment restrictions that created significant problems in accessing capital, the lack of availability of the most popular devices (such as the Apple iPhone) on new entrant networks, and the inability to offer attractive bundled packages that include wireless, television, and home broadband services.

There are primarily two things that will drive corporate behavior in any market – competition and government regulation. In the absence of robust competition, regulation is needed. The Canadian government should be doing all it can create a more competition, but it must also commit to regulation – even if temporary – until that competitive environment develops.

There are several regulatory options available that may ultimately enhance competition. First, the government should toughen tower sharing requirements and domestic roaming rules to make it easier to new entrants to expand their networks. Further, it should remove all foreign investment restrictions (currently only smaller operators may be acquired). In fact, it should consider opening up the broadcast distribution market so that all competitors can offer bundled packages.

The government could also rethink its approach on the forthcoming spectrum auction. While it would be unpopular with the incumbents, a full set-aside geared toward new entrants would virtually guarantee changes to the competitive landscape. Companies such as Bell and Rogers already possess large blocks of unused spectrum and the auction may be the last chance to create a strong, national fourth carrier.

Another mechanism to generate more competition would be to create a regulated mobile virtual network operator market. MVNOs typically do not own spectrum or network infrastructure. Instead, they purchase network access at wholesale rates from existing operators and offer it to consumers with their own retail pricing. MVNOs such as Canadian-owned Ting have become a hit in the U.S. but are not even available in Canada. By setting the wholesale price, the government could use regulation to create a new batch of MVNO competitors in Canada, much as it has tried to do with Internet access services.

On the consumer side, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission’s wireless code of conduct, which was released today, is the starting point for regulation of retail wireless services. The code effectively sets a two-year limit on wireless contracts, creates caps on data roaming fees to address bill shock, and requires that carriers offer device unlocking services.

A complete removal of foreign investment restrictions for communications companies, a full spectrum set-aside, and regulated wholesale pricing seemed unthinkable a few years ago.  Yet as the wireless policy failures mount, the government must act boldly if it wants the Canadian market to be anything better than “middle average”.


  1. CRTC needs to do some heavy regulating
    We’ve seen what happens when the CRTC lets the Telecom monopolies do what they want. It’s horrible for consumers and Canada’s Telecom future. Now it’s time to start regulating the price-gouging, and release foreign investment to give Canada some much needed competition. They had their chance, and they treated Canadians horrible.

  2. The wireless code is a good first step, for those not already in a contract anyways. Now, more regulation is needed to reign in an industry that has for far too long had free reign.

  3. Stoneman says:

    CRTC? Corrupt Redundant Tainted Cabal
    Simply put, the CRTC needs to be chopped up, sold and thrown away. Replace it with an unbiased and consumer-fair group.

  4. @Stoneman
    Sure, you say that now, when for the first time the CRTC truly seems to have consumer interests at heart rather then industry. Where were you 10 or 20 years ago, when the CRTC was rubber stamping every merger and acquisition these companies were making?

  5. competition
    Where a truly free market is possible, I will favour that over a regulated monopoly any day. The fact the big three telecoms require regulating as a monopoly is unfortunately the CRTC’s own doing. Had they kept the markets narrow. I.E. network companies separate from content companies, there would be no need for regulation. Three competitors would have been sufficient.

    However the CRTC allowed them all to grow into massive media/network companies with highly integrated products. Now the markets they are in are simply too big for only three (well 2 1/2) competitors. To truly redeem themselves, the CRTC should breakup Rogers and Bell as the US regulators did with AT&T many years ago. Then so much of this regulation would be unnecessary.

  6. You can’t create a competitive industry through regulation. By definition you can only create a regulated industry. Then the government will decide what level, quality and price of service is appropriate for Canadians. Having seen what the government thinks is appropriate for taxes I would much rather take my chances with the way things are today in the cell phone industry.

  7. James Van Leeuwen says:

    ICT Consultant
    The only solution we can have any faith in:

    Communities and entire nations around the globe are building out their own fibre networks, usually on a public utility model.

    Estonia has mandated universal 100 Mbps fibre access. They already provide free mobility service.

    Broadband is an essential utility, but we don’t have leadership in our senior governments that will take us down that road.

    We will have to lead ourselves, from the community level.

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