Tossing verbal hand grenades at competitors, Ottawa and regulators is a time-honored tradition at the annual Canadian Telecom Summit.
On Wednesday the tradition at the annual Toronto conference was upheld with cries of “codswallop,” “bullswallop” and an accusation of bullying.
Behind the jocularity, however, are the strains of incumbents wireless carriers fighting new entrants for advantage as the federal government tries to forge policy on two crucial issues: Whether it should liberalize telecom foreign ownership, and the rules for the upcoming 700 Mhz spectrum auction.
To put it simply, the incumbents want Ottawa to stop policies that lean towards new carriers, saying it’s time they stood up for themselves. The new entrants say without more help getting access for foreign capital and to more spectrum they’ll be swamped.
The fight has been played out before at annual general meetings, in press releases, at regulatory hearings and before Parliament. It carries on at the summit where policy makers from Industry Canada rub elbows with the private sector.
So it was not unexpected that Edward Antecol, vice-president of regulatory affairs for startup Globalive Communications Corp., the parent of Wind Mobile, started of the annual regulatory panel discussion by accusing a Rogers Communications Inc. president of acting “like a big bully” in his keynote the day before.Antecol also described part of the speech given earlier in the day by the CEO of Quebec cableco Videotron, Robert Depatie, as “hogwash” after Depatie dismissed claims that it only costs an Internet carrier like him pennies to transmit a gigabyte of data as “codswallow.”
Other panelists, lawyers who often face off against each other at hearings, knew what was expected.
Mirko Bibic, Bell Canada’s senior vice-president of regulatory affairs, accused Telus Corp. of trying to impose “as cumbersome a set of regulatory rules as we’ve seen in decades” to impair Bell parent BCE Inc.’s purchase of the CTV television network. Then he reminded the audience that in a recent submission to Ottawa, Telus complained that it is unfair for Ottawa to adopt policies that reward some companies –like allowing Bell to buy CTV — and not others.
Telus chose not to buy a network, Bibic reminded the audience.
For his part, Telus’ senior regulatory vice-president Michael Hennessy called Depatie’s allegation that his company and Bell have huge swaths of unused wireless spectrum “bullswallop.”
Meanwhile, when the panel turned to the touchy question of whether there should be rules limiting carrier-distributors from keeping certain exclusive content rights for their own networks, Rogers SVP for regulatory affairs Ken Engelhart said he feels a certain dread when Bell says, “We don’t want any rules, but we’re here to negotiate.”
But things got serious when the talk turned to what the rules should be for the spectrum auction and foreign investment.
The current rules say only Canadian-controlled companies can buy spectrum and limit direct and indirect investment to 46 per cent of a carrier.
Antecol urged Ottawa to liberalize the ownership rules fast because the new wireless carriers need capital to expand. “Without change new entrants will hang around, make a little noise and wait to be bought out” by incumbent carriers, he warned.
As holders of most of the spectrum in Canada, Bell, Rogers and Telus are a “cozy little ogilopoly,” he charged. “It sucks for consumers.” To even things Ottawa should either set aside spectrum for carriers like Wind that own little spectrum – as the government did for the 2008 spectrum auction — or set a cap on how much spectrum Bell, Rogers and Telus can buy.
He found some support from Telus’ Hennessy, whose company advocates a cap but is opposed to set asides.
But Bibic argued that it’s time Ottawa let the new entrants stand on their own. Globalive, he noted, is backed by a billion-dollar international wireless company (VimpelCom), while Videotron and soon-to-launch Shaw Communications Inc. and Eastlink Communications are well-funded cable companies.
Their bosses carried the battle in their keynote speeches. Earlier in the day, Depatie
said “Ottawa must fix the spectral imbalance that favours Rogers, Bell and Telus” by capping the amount of spectrum the incumbents can buy.
In a separate speech, Telus’ chief financial officer Robert McFarlane said the company needs more wireless spectrum because its network is already “capacity challenged” in some cities.
He also pleaded for “fair and equitable” changes to the foreign investment rules so all carriers are treated equally.
On Thursday, the last day of the summit, the issues of auction rules and foreign investment will likely also play a major part of the addresses from Globalive chairman Anthony Lacavera and Bell CEO George Cope.