Canada’s wireless war of 2013: Whose side should we be on?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Canada’s wireless war of 2013: Whose side should we be on?

I don't know who's right in the public relations war between Canada's big wireless carriers and the Conservative government. I do know I'm tired of the cynical tactics each side is using to try and win me over.

Unless you've been hiding out in a remote cabin somewhere without cell coverage, you can't have avoided the inundation of advertising over an impending auction of valuable, publicly-owned wireless frequency spectrum.

The big players in Canada's mobile-phone market, BCE Inc. (Bell Mobility), Rogers Communications and Telus Corp., are crying foul that the federal government is opening the door for foreign companies to purchase struggling smaller Canadian wireless providers, thereby acquiring spectrum supposedly reserved for domestic startups.

Their campaign is aimed at U.S. wireless giant Verizon, which is thought to be kicking the tires of Wind Mobile and Mobilicity.

[ Related: Harper gov't, telcos trade barbs over Verizon's entry ]

Once here, Verizon would also be allowed to bid on fresh spectrum that's become available after the closure of analog TV broadcasting transmitters.

The government announced a change in policy last March that it said was designed to bring real competition to the Canadian wireless marketplace, which presumably would lead to lower prices.

The previous policy of fostering home-grown competition to the big providers has largely failed, with the upstarts either swallowed up by their bigger rivals or starved of capital and marginalized.

The industry launched a massive public-relations blitz with full-page newspaper ads, TV commercials and a web site, Fair For Canada. It warns that allowing in big foreign players like Verizon would ultimately damage the good-quality wireless services Canadians enjoy, threaten jobs and raise concerns about the privacy of Canadians' information in the hands of a foreign-based supplier.

All the big telecos want, they say, is a level playing field, as if there already was one. Yes, Verizon probably is four times the size of Bell, Rogers and Telus combined, just like they were so much bigger than the Canadian small fry they crushed competitively.

The Conservatives, never slow to exploit an opponent's weakness for political gain, saw an opportunity in the industry's bleating. It's portraying itself as a crusader for consumer fairness.

James Moore, the new industry minister and one of the Harper government's most effective voices, has been on the stump this summer accusing the Big Three of scaremongering.

“September is when you have to ante-up and enter the auction and January is when the auction actually happens,” Moore said this week, according to Global News.

“But between now and then there’s a great deal of speculation going on, there’s a great big national campaign going on from the big three incumbent telecommunications companies, and I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

The Conservatives set up their own web site, Consumers First, to push the government's rationale behind the policy changes that open the Canadian market to foreign competition and requiring existing providers to share their cell towers with newcomers.

[ Related: New rules let customers cancel contracts without penalty ]

The site also notes that the big players themselves once benefited from "substantial startup advantages including the granting of spectrum through a non-competitive process" in the early phase of wireless development in the 1980s and '90s.

The Huffington Post says the Consumers First site looks like a reskinned version of the Conservative Party's Standing Up for Wireless Consumers site, right down to soliciting your name and email address to add to the party's database. Consumers First is a party effort, though you have to read the fine print at the bottom of the page to learn that. The Huffington Post suggested the effort amounts to "Astroturfing," which Wikipedia defines as concealing the source of a message so it appears to be coming from a grassroots group.

Who should Canadians root for: the big three telcos who say it's in our best interest to protect their dominant position in the market; or a government that hopes we'll remember the time it fought for lower cellphone bills come next election?

The whole debate has a "through the looking glass" quality. As the National Post's Jesse Kline points out, it "has created some strange bedfellows, with free marketeers finding themselves in bed with protectionists."

With that in mind, no one could blame you for retreating to a cabin where cell phones get no bars until this whole thing blows over.