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Wireless competition in Canada?!

Canadians shoulder among the highest cost for mobile phone service in the developed world.

The Canadian mobile service market has been divvied up between the “big three” wireless companies; Rogers, Bell and Telus. Collectively and colloquially known as Robelus. Yes here in Canada, our oligopolies are so entrenched that they have cute, short-hand names. “Value” wireless brands like Chatr, Public, Koodo—all owned by the big three— only serve to create the illusion of choice.

Back in 2014, the CRTC, Canada’s regulatory body for all things telecommunications, opted not to force the incumbents into offering service to “mobile virtual network operators” (MVNOs). It deemed that the quasi-competition seen in the Canadian mobile market, wholly dominated by three major carriers, was sufficient. It pointed to a far distant fourth carrier, then Wind Mobile now Freedom Mobile, as a panacea for what ails Canadian mobile customers.

In short, it’s not a terribly vibrant competitive landscape.

We’ve spoken often and at length about how much we’d like to offer service in Canada. Canada is home not just to our headquarters but also to the majority of our workforce. The anti-competitive mobile market has never offered an opening.

Elliot Noss, CEO of Ting and parent company Tucows, spoke at the CRTC hearing in 2014 on whether MVNO access to existing wireless networks should be mandated. Here are some of the key points he made, compiled by watchdog OpenMedia

A glimmer of hope?

Navdeep Bains, Canada’s Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development used the recent Canadian Telecom Summit* to point out what the wireless buying public knows all too well: That there’s precious little competition in Canadian wireless and that, when someone steps up with an idea, choking it out like a weed doesn’t help the Canadian wireless service buying public. By speaking out, Minister Bains fostered a tiny seed of competition in Canadian mobile service.

*Just as an aside, if you have any doubt as to whether the Canadian telecom industry is stuck in the past, click that link.

Minister Bains was discussing Sugar Mobile at the time. Sugar Mobile was the Wi-Fi-first offshoot of the remote northern carrier Ice Wireless. It found a little loophole that allowed it to offer mobile service across much of Canada. The company used existing reciprocal roaming agreements to provide Sugar Mobile with a fall-back mobile nationwide network for its customers to use when away from Wi-Fi.

Sugar Mobile successfully navigated around the Canadian cell phone service oligopoly’s unwillingness to work with MNVOs… for a short while at least. In March of this year the CRTC acquiesced to the complaints and demands of the Canadian wireless carriers. The CRTC closed the door on Sugar Mobile.

Minister Bains points out that “this choice does not benefit Canadians,” and wants to see the discussion re-opened.

It’s a start.

In a perfect world…

We’d rather see a competitive environment where public policy doesn’t need to be in place to foster competition; where wireless oligopolies don’t get to grow a root system in the first place, but that ship has long sailed.

The next best option for Canadian cell phone users is mandated access for MVNOs as a starting point. More than that though, there needs to be a default implementation of an MVNO agreement.

Too often CRTC decisions are rendered meaningless because of delayed or neutered implementation. This happened in third-party access to cable, where a decision was rendered in 1996 and the first customer did not go live until 2012. This is currently happening with third-party access to fiber and “skinny” TV bundles. Robelus fights the decision, then they fight harder on implementation. The politicians and regulators are happy with the headlines that decisions provide but this does not help the Canadian people.

There are successful models of mandated MVNOs in markets all around the world. In the competitive US environment, MVNOs brought with them a wave of choice and, if we do say so ourselves, raised the stakes for things like customer choice, customer service and more generally, for customer control and the overall customer experience.

In other words, MVNOs put the power in the hands of the customer where it belongs.

Minister Bains speaking out presents a glimmer of hope for Canadians tired of paying the highest prices in the developed world for mobile phone service.

Did we mention that Canadians pay the highest prices in the developed world for mobile phone service?

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