Two sides to every coin

“The Government will encourage more private sector competition and investment in services that have become essential in a digital economy.” That is a quote from the letter of welcome sent to CRTC Chair Ian Scott last week by Heritage Minister Melanie Joly and Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Navdeep Bains.

“All Canadians and Canadian businesses deserve high quality telecommunications services at affordable prices.” How do you increase competition to drive “affordable” service prices while simultaneously encouraging investment?

It is a delicate balance. How do we define and measure “affordable”? We all want lower prices for everything, other than our own wages, but when you add the modifier “high quality” to the product definition, it gets more difficult to implement.

What is the right way to increase competition? What is the right level of competition that provides pricing discipline, encourages innovation, and maintains the right incentives for continued investment in infrastructure?

A recent article by Rita Trichur in the Globe and Mail starts by saying

The three-year contract is dead, but monthly bills keep rising. Switching carriers is a nightmare, add-on charges multiply like cockroaches, and being off contract doesn’t guarantee that you’ll find a substantially better deal if you shop around.

Many blame the CRTC. The regulator has tinkered with the rules, but it has largely failed to keep major carriers in check.

Yes. Monthly bills went up precisely because the three year contract is dead, just as the CRTC was warned. The CRTC banning innovative pricing plans like zero rating also has led to less price competition and discouraging product differentiation. In the case of Videotron’s Unlimited Music, the CRTC prohibited a service innovation by a new entrant and denied consumers a chance to save.

On one hand, we want consumers to have more choice, on the other hand certain groups want the only competition to be on the basis of price. If a service provider doesn’t have market power, do we really need to regulate its services and products?

Two sides to every coin.

The issue of spectrum set asides is another one that is more complicated than the average soundbite portrays. On one hand, the new entrants want access to more spectrum in the lower frequency bands, as noted by Christine Dobby in her recent article, which is why they are seeking a set-aside in the 600 MHz auction. On the other hand, Canada’s new entrants in the mobile wireless sector are not start-ups; they are multi-billion dollar vertically integrated communications giants – Shaw and Quebecor.

Quebecor’s Videotron Ltd. now has 16 per cent of wireless subscribers in the province and, after wrapping up expensive investments in building an LTE network, the business now makes a healthy contribution to the telecom division’s free cash flow, which increased by almost $100-million in the first half of this year to $399.5-million.

While Quebecor CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau told The Globe and Mail that Rogers, Bell and TELUS “received swaths of low-band spectrum from the government at no charge when they first set up their cellular networks in the 1980s”, the other side of that issue is that the incumbents have been paying annual license fees for that “free” spectrum. In total, the three companies have paid more than three and a half billion dollars in license fees, with a present value of more than $8.5B in 2017 dollars. This is hardly swaths of spectrum for “no charge”.

Under such considerations, should we still have spectrum set-aside for “new entrants” in the upcoming auction? Is it noteworthy that just last week, Mr. Péladeau criticized a two-tier system for Canadian content obligations, saying it “is blatantly unjust.”

Two sides to every coin.

High quality services at affordable prices creates a difficult tension in implementing communications policy.

What is affordable for some is different than what is considered affordable for others. As I have written before, perhaps our focus should be looking at the issue of affordability by “Looking at who, not just where.”

That would require increased product and service flexibility and the ability for service providers to differentiate themselves. Do we really expect increased competition to emerge from heavy handed government regulation?

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