Telus’ decision to file a lawsuit against the federal government over its spectrum transfer rules continues a trend of flip-flopping on policy issues at the company. What does Telus think of the government’s wireless policies? Apparently it depends when you ask. For example, in March 2012, Telus said the following about the spectrum auction approach:
TELUS believes this is a thoughtful and balanced decision that meets the Government’s objectives of promoting consumer choice, supporting sustainable competition through investment in technology and further expanding broadband services in rural markets.
Sixteen months (and the possibility of a Verizon entry) later, CEO Darren Entwistle now says:
There’s going to be a bloodbath, because people are not going to give up on getting that block. So it’s going to be prohibitively expensive and suck a lot of money out of the industry – money that won’t go to infrastructure and technology, money that won’t go into rural coverage or support lower prices.
There is similar change of tune with the latest lawsuit.
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As the lobby onslaught from Bell, Telus, and Rogers bears some fruit – editorials from the Globe and Toronto Star calling for the government to reverse its position on a set-aside as well as support from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives and from a leading telecom union – it is worth considering whether the Canadian policy differs significantly from other developed economies. The Canadian policy boils down to the two issues: opening the door to telecom foreign investment after years of restrictions and creating a spectrum set-aside to ensure that new entrants (whether domestic or foreign) have a reasonable shot at winning sufficient spectrum to offer competitive wireless services in Canada.
While the big three argue for a “level playing field”, the reality is that Bell, Telus, and Rogers already enjoy enormous marketplace advantages. As I’ve previously discussed, these include restrictions on foreign ownership for broadcast distribution, extensive broadcast assets that Verizon could not touch, millions of subscribers locked into long term contracts, far more spectrum than Verizon would own, and shared networks that saves the companies millions of dollars. In the absence of a set-aside, the incentives for the big three would be to pay far above market price for the spectrum in order to keep competitors out of the market. In other words, Bell, Telus and Rogers will massively over-pay for the spectrum to keep out Verizon unless the government establishes a policy that precludes them from doing so.
The incumbent talking points might lead some to believe that the Canadian policy is dramatically different from other countries (Bell has been talking about how the U.S. would never grant equivalent access, while the Globe speculates that perhaps the policy is “the result of a drafting error”). Yet a review of recent spectrum auctions in other OECD countries indicates that the twin policy of encouraging foreign investment plus establishing set-asides to facilitate competition is very common. The biggest difference between Canada and many other developed economies is that Canada is late to opening its telecom market and is therefore doing both at roughly the same time. In other countries, foreign investment restrictions in the telecom market were removed years ago.
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As the revelations about U.S. secret surveillance continue, one of the more interesting recent articles was a Buzzfeed piece that focused on a Utah ISP that hosted a “little black box” in the corner inserted by the National Security Agency. The article describes how a Foreign Intelligence Service Act (FISA) warrant allowed the NSA to monitor the activities of an ISP subscriber by inserting surveillance equipment directly within the ISP’s network. The experience in Utah appears to have been replicated in many other Internet and technology companies, who face secret court orders to install equipment on their systems.
The U.S. experience should raise some alarm bells in Canada, since the now defeated lawful access bill envisioned similar legal powers. Section 14(4) of the bill provided:
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BCE CEO George Cope is claiming that the company approached the government with concerns about the forthcoming spectrum auction (as I note in this post, Bell has been a longstanding opponent of changes to the foreign investment rules and spectrum set-asides). BCE was particularly concerned with the potential for a […]
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Bell was in full lobby mode yesterday with major advertisements and a new website arguing against a spectrum set-aside that could open the door to Verizon entering the Canadian market. CEO George Cope’s starting point is that “Bell welcomes any competitor, but they should compete on a level playing field.” Both aspects of this statement merit closer scrutiny.
Of all the incumbent telcos, Bell has been the most persistent in trying to limit or delay the removal of foreign investment restrictions that would open the door to new competitors. For example, Bell Canada’s July 2010 submission to the government’s consultation on changes to the foreign investment rules for telecommunications argued that no changes were needed since there were no problems in the Canadian market:
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