Coalition tells CRTC more affordable wireless options are needed

GATINEAU, Que. — A coalition of groups representing consumers, low-income and Indigenous people in Manitoba told the CRTC Monday that "Canadians have waited long enough" for high-quality mobile wireless services at an affordable price.

The comments came at the opening of another week of hearings at the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which is looking at the state of competition in the mobile services industry.

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The CRTC has proposed that Canada's three national networks — Bell, Rogers and Telus — should be required to sell wholesale capacity to rival carriers in order to increase competition at the consumer level.

Bell, Telus and two regional mobile carriers — Freedom and Eastlink — said last week that they are already highly competitive with each other and that consumers won't really be helped if the CRTC artificially creates more competition.

They also said Canada is widely recognized as having some of the world's fastest, furthest reaching mobile networks in the world, despite the country's large, sparsely populated territory and rugged terrain that adds to their costs.

This week will feature presentations from a number of consumer advocacy groups that are pushing for the introduction of mobile virtual network operators, or MVNOs, a type of competition that primarily rents capacity from other carriers.

On Monday, a group calling itself the Manitoba Coalition said many people at the lower end of the income spectrum either can't afford wireless service or must ration their mobile data usage.

The group is calling for a universally available basic wireless service with two gigabytes of data for between $25 and $30 per month.

"Canadian consumers have been on a patient regulatory journey and have waited long enough," said Gloria Desorcy, executive director for the Manitoba arm of the Consumers Association of Canada.

Among other things, the Manitoba Coalition cited multinational statistics from June 2018 that ranked Canada 30th out of 37 OECD countries when it came to how widely smartphones had been adopted, as measured by market penetration.

It also cited statistics collected last year by Wall Communications for the federal government that indicated Canada's mobile data prices had fallen from 2018 but the decline was slower than in other jurisdictions.

Testimony from several of Canada's largest wireless network operators pointed out last week that many statistics, including the Wall report, didn't account for unlimited data plans and financing plans introduced last summer.

However, a researcher from Carleton University who was hired by the Manitoba Coalition said Canada's relatively high mobile prices have been observed by many studies over an extended period of time.

"If one or two studies were to appear suggesting that the prices here are higher than others, I think it would be reasonable to question them," said Ben Klass, a PhD candidate who began his telecommunications research in 2011.

"Virtually every independent report that I've come across points to the same conclusion. So when you see, over time, reports using different methodologies, constantly pointing to the same thing, it lends credibility to those reports."

Klass added that Canada has been at the bottom of OECD countries when it comes to adoption of smartphones, which provide voice, text and data — considered to be a modern standard of communications.

Statistics Canada data shows smartphones have been adopted by more than 90 per cent of people who earn between $55,000 and $60,000 per year, he said.

By contrast, he said, the adoption rate is only 75 per cent or 85 per cent, respectively for the two lowest income levels in Canada.

"So regardless of international comparisons on price, I think this is a policy problem that really needs to be addressed," Klass said.

— by David Paddon in Toronto.

Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:RCI.B, TSX:QBR.B, TSX:T, TSX:SJR.B)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2020.

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