Canadian Telecom Summit: Complaints of whining, gratuitous shots and allegations of abusing customers highlighted the annual regulatory blockbuster free-for-all

Barbs fly at telecom conference

The highlight of the annual Canadian Telecom Summit is the “regulatory blockbuster” panel, which usually sees lawyers from competing carriers hurling barbs – sometimes politely, sometimes not — at each other, Ottawa or the federal telecommunications regulator.

Tuesday’s panel at the Toronto conference was no different, with participants from five operators and a consumer group letting loose on a range of issues.

Here’s what you missed:

–On Ottawa’s upcoming liberalization of foreign telecom ownership, which will allow foreign companies to take over wireless carriers with less than 10 per cent of the market:

Totally unnecessary, said Mirko Bibic, Bell Canada’s chief legal officer. With some cities seeing five wireless carriers duking it out “it’s a classic public policy solution in search of a problem.”

It would create a two-tier capital financing regime, he added, with one set of rules for those who want to invest in incumbents like Bell, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Communications, and other for other wireless companies.

Not only that, in the upcoming 700 MHz spectrum auction a foreign-controlled wireless company would have a great advantage over incumbents, he said, because incumbents can only buy one block of spectrum each in every geography. New entrants like Mobilicity, Public Mobile, Wind Mobile or Videotron can buy two blocks. If they’re backed by a foreign “giant,” outsiders would have a two-to-one advantage in buying spectrum, he argued.

So he suggested that if a foreign carrier takes over an incumbent, the auction rules should change so all bidders can only buy one block per geography.

“I’m amazed at this whining,” retorted Edward Antecol, vice president of regulatory affairs for Wind Mobile’s parent, Globalive Wireless Management.

The incumbents – which he dubbed ‘Robelus’—have 85 per cent of the spectrum Industry Canada has given or auctioned off over the years, he said.

No one, he added, is going to outbid an incumbent carrier, he added.

The issue is moot, because during an interview at the conference with reporters, Industry Minister Christian Paradis said the government has no intention of changing the 10 per cent rule.

–On the need for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to set up a national wireless marketing code of conduct for carriers to head off provinces who might each pass their own legislation:

Bibic warned against a “hodge-podge” of differing provincial laws covering cellphone contracts, but Antecol said Bell, Rogers and Telus “want the CRTC to save them from themselves,” from what he called “consumer abuses.”

He complained Rogers has made a “wishy-washy” proposal for a code to the CRTC that doesn’t protect consumers, who would have to give a carrier 30 days notice to cancel service, to pay $50 fee and cover some of the subsidy on a cellphone.

If the big three incumbents clean up their contracts there won’t be provincial complaints, he said.

Bibic retorted that Antecol had made a “gratuitous shot” against his company. “It gets tiresome to sweep up after Ed,” he said later.

But Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ senior vice-president of regulatory affairs, noted that proposed legislation may not make sense. Two proposed provincial laws would see a subscriber’s service automatically ends when a contract runs out. Standard practice is to let the terms of the contract continue, he said. What happens if service ends and when the subscriber goes to the carrier to renew finds that his cellphone number is gone, he asked.

John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, agreed the ball is in the CRTC’s court, but it has to come up with a code with teeth.

There will be a constitutional fight with the provinces, he predicted, and called on the carriers for leadership.
Carriers have almost unanimously asked the CRTC in written submissions to create a code. At an earlier session Tuesday, acting chair Len Katz said the agency will try to deal with the issue as quickly as it can.

–On Bell and Telus being able to bid as separate companies in the upcoming spectrum auction, although they share a wireless network:

This was vigorously defended by Ted Woodhead, Telus’ vice-president of telecom policy and regulatory affairs, who noted the two carriers compete for customers. Industry Canada wants carriers to work together on infrastructure, he added.

This isn’t a “modest sharing,” said Rogers’ Engelhart, it’s a single network.

“Certain parts of it are separate,” said Woodhead.

“Certain parts of it are one network,” retorted Engelhart.

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