Quebecor CEO asks feds for wireless intervention

The president and CEO of Quebecor Inc. made a plea for government intervention to make the wireless market more competitive at a luncheon speech to The Empire Club of Canada in Toronto on Thursday.

And while the club’s executive gave what could only be called an endorsement of the call for spectrum to be set aside for new entrants in the upcoming advanced wireless services (AWS) spectrum auction, representatives of an incumbent wireless carrier and the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association were predictably unimpressed.

Pierre Karl Peladeau said the Big 3 wireless carries – Telus, Bell Mobility and Rogers Wireless – have a stranglehold on the market and that’s leading to higher prices. The spectrum auction is an opportunity to address that. Federal Industry Minister Jim Prentice confirmed Tuesday that the auction would go ahead.

“Spectrum is more valuable for a company that wants to block competition than for an operator who must invest heavily to establish that competition,” Peladeau told the audience of business leaders (including former prime minister Bryan Mulroney). “Without the right conditions, no new Canadian operator is able to buy spectrum at a price set by the current players.”

Peladeau insisted he wasn’t calling for favourable treatment or subsidy for Quebecor. Bell Mobility president Wade Oosterman scoffed.

“If it’s not a subsidy, what is it?” he said after the speech.

CWTA president Peter Barnes said the industry welcomes more competition, but “what we have to object to is new competitors asking the government to help them out.”

Peladeau began his case for more competition in the wireless market by citing Apple’s iPhone. Its capabilities are a taste of the wireless future that’s not available in Canada. And if it were, he said, Canadians would pay between $260 and $879 a month for the services American users get for $60.

And even “our own source of national pride” – Research in Motion’s BlackBerry – is priced out of the budgets of most Canadians.

“The COO of RIM believes that Canadian wireless carriers could increase the number of BlackBerrys they sell every week by eight or nine times if they simply lowered their (data plan) prices to the levels seen in such countries as Germany, France and Spain,” Peladeau said.

While Empire Club president Catherine Swift offered after the speech that she “couldn’t agree more,” Barnes didn’t agree much at all.

“The one thing I agreed with is that wireless is the future,” Barnes said. “It went downhill after that. The analysis at the forefront is flawed.”

Barnes said data plan pricing isn’t pushing BlackBerrys out of the hands of Canadians. “Canadians are the highest per capita users of BlackBerrys in the world, full stop,” he said.

And Oosterman wondered aloud how a user could ring up an iPhone bill of the magnitude Peladeau suggested when Bell Mobility had introduced a $70-a-month all-you-can-eat wireless data plan.

As for the as-yet unavailable iPhone, Oosterman said there’s nothing it can do – download music, stream TV, browse the Web, give directions from an interactive map — that can’t be done with handsets already available in Canada.

“He makes it seem like these things aren’t available in Canada,” Oosterman said.

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