Keeping out of the way

“The past was never as good as some people would have you believe. And the present is never as bad.”

That quote was in an article I read this week by Roy Peter Clark about US politics. But the quote jumped into my mind as I read an opinion piece in yesterday’s Globe and Mail that mistakenly claims “Canada is reverting to its pre-1992 telecom conditions“. The piece was co-authored by telecom entrepreneur Michael Kedar and Stéphane Gagnon, a professor of business technology management at the University of Quebec in Outaouais.

The article claims that “The evolution from 100-per-cent monopoly to today’s regime benefited Canadians tremendously. It brought the cost of that $1 call to a few pennies, owing to the entry of competitive companies such as CallNet, Unitel, Clearnet, Microcell and others. Most of those competitors are long gone, though, purchased by the dominant players. And the benefits of equal-access competition, introduced in 1992, have been eroded to the point where they are nearly gone, too.”

I remember the days before the CRTC’s landmark decision in 1992 very well. I was part of the lead off panel that testified in the oral hearing in that proceeding. Many people don’t realize that we had to prove the case for competition to the CRTC. In fact, I still have my briefing book on the shelves in my office – one of the tabs in that binder highlights why we used the term “equal ease of access”, not “equal access”. The CRTC used our terminology in their decision.

The benefits of equal ease of access have eroded mainly because the marginal price of a minute of long distance voice communications has fallen so precipitously close to zero. I speak to my overseas family on a daily basis, still marveling at the ability to be using a mobile phone traveling 100 kmph on a highway, traversing overseas lines and speaking to my daughter riding on a high speed train home from work – and there are no charges per minute.

Who needs equal ease of access when so many calls are now effectively free with your monthly plan?

While Kedar and Gagnon claim that most of the competitors were purchased by “the dominant players”, they neglect to mention that many were acquired out of bankruptcy or on the verge of financial disaster.

We shook up the telecom market back in the early nineties – what business school profs might say was an early instance of disruption in the technology arena.

There were a lot of failed business models. A number of companies took advantage of arbitrage opportunities and made a lot of money in the early days, but struggled as the bigger players adjusted. When retail prices fall toward zero, profitable arbitrage opportunities are tough to find.

The survivors are those companies that have anticipated and driven changes in the marketplace, investing in new technologies, to develop innovative new products and services.

Kedar and Gagnon say “Today, more than 90 per cent of the spectrum and revenues are held by the three former monopolies – Bell, TELUS and Rogers.” The authors claim “They were the only players with a 100-year head start in the infrastructure deployments necessary for building wireless networks.”


In what field did Rogers have a 100-year head start? Apparently the authors forgot that Rogers was actually one of the competitors, a key investor in the group that led the battle to create Canada’s competitive telecommunications landscape that started in 1992. It didn’t have a head start.

Kedar and Gagnon say “Ubiquitous interoperability and high quality of service are essential, and are not to be entrusted to private monopoly providers.”

What monopoly?

One might ask what were the factors that led these companies to compete against each other? Why did these companies succeed in expanding their geographic scope to operate nationally while other telephone and cable companies kept to their original territories? Bell, TELUS and Rogers were not the only companies of their kind in 1992. Why Rogers and not Videotron or Shaw? Why Bell and TELUS and not MTS or SaskTel?

In any case, it is completely inaccurate to refer to Bell, TELUS and Rogers as “private monopoly providers”. Even the application of the term “incumbents” is an artifact of linguistic gymnastics by the government in defining who qualifies as a “new entrant” bidding for spectrum set-asides.

Pre-1992, there was the phone company, a single company in each area. In many parts of the world, that telephone monopoly was in the hands of a government agency, often part of the post office (the PTT – postal, telephone and telegraph). Those of us who ever dealt with a PTT do not remember them fondly and they were generally not noted as models of customer service excellence. Would Kedar and Gagnon prefer a return to the days of state-owned government monopolies?

The past was never as good as some people would have you believe. And the present is never as bad.

In my briefing book, the word “choice” is highlighted over and over again. One of the messages that we were trying to deliver was that competition in long distance would lead to improved consumer choice.

None of us had any idea of the number and kinds of choices that consumers would enjoy 25 years later. Speaking through instant messaging applications? Watching football games on a mobile phone?

We didn’t know that cable companies would offer voice calling, that wireline communications would no longer be an automatic choice for households. That phone companies would stop installing copper lines.

Kedar and Gagnon say “It is elected government, devoted to the public interest, that is entrusted with ensuring equal and fair access to promote innovative participation by all.”

What we actually need is a government that promotes investment by the private sector. We need government to promote measures that enable and encourages the private sector to experiment with different models, some of which will succeed and some will fail, but all will continue to deliver more choices to consumers.

The past was never as good as some people would have you believe. And the present is never as bad.

I continue to look optimistically to the future. As I have written before [such as here and here], the future will be brighter for Canadian innovation if the government would try harder to get out of the way.

3 thoughts on “Keeping out of the way”

  1. You’ve set up an interesting binary of ‘mature’, experienced individuals with two totally different views on how the competitive market in telecom has developed. I tend to subscribe to yours if only to emphasize the point that the market has shifted so much through the development of mobile applications, and the flowering of the Internet, that it gets harder and harder to think of an individual company having any real control over anything their customers do, or their communications solutions choices.

    Instead of focusing on the past, I’d like to see persons of experience do a bit more crystal ball gazing for what’s coming ahead. Surely all that experience and knowledge can have valuable commentary on the business models of the future, rather than fighting the battles of old.

  2. I would hope the outcome of liberalizing access to the LD market sheds some light on why access to incumbent providers networks is still key to driving down costs and opening opportunity for consumer benefits. Wholesale Access to todays fibre and wireless networks by competetive providers will allow all Canadians to enjoy both service and price innovation that came to the LD market oh so many years ago.

  3. Edward,

    That access is available to independent service providers today, via the wholesale access tariffs that independent ISPs can access at any time. Providers like TekSavvy, Distributel, Start Communications are sterling examples of smaller service providers that use incumbent networks to reach their customers and provide innovative retail services.

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