Sustainable competition and continued investment

This decision helps to promote access to affordable telecommunications services for Canadians and to foster sustainable competition and continued investment.

That was how the CRTC summarized its decision last night on final offer arbitration between Bell Mobility and Quebecor for wholesale mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) access rates.

The decision was notable for a few reasons:

  • A focus on creating and maintaining incentives for investment;
  • Fostering “sustainable competition”, which has historically been CRTC and Competition Bureau language for “facilities-based competition”;
  • Clarifying that the wholesale framework is not intended to guarantee profitability for wholesale-based service providers;
  • The CRTC explicitly discounted the usefulness of comparisons to European rates;
  • Recognition that average network costs don’t support investment in suburban and rural infrastructure.

The Bell – Quebecor decision should be read in the context of a similar arbitration between Rogers and Quebecor released by the CRTC nearly two months ago. In the earlier instance, the CRTC required Rogers to offer a wholesale service at rates acknowledged to be below Rogers’ costs. The CRTC said Rogers’ shortfall could be made up “through other telecommunications services”. The Rogers decision has been appealed to the courts because of the precedent-setting nature of wholesale rates being set below costs.

This week, the CRTC selected Bell Mobility’s offer.

The Commission clearly accepted the concern that wholesale rates impact the incentives for investment by both parties.

  1. Nevertheless, the Commission considers that Bell Mobility has raised a valid concern regarding the long-term impact of artificially low wholesale rates on the policy objective of fostering network investments, which is particularly relevant in suburban and rural areas. While lower retail prices backed by lower wholesale rates are desirable, as discussed earlier, these different interests must be balanced with the wholesale MVNO access provider’s incentives for continued network investment. Accordingly, the Commission is of the view that Bell Mobility’s offer best strikes the balance of maintaining both parties’ incentives to invest.

The CRTC said “the MVNO access framework is not intended to guarantee a risk-free profit margin for [Quebecor’s] MVNO operations, and QMI’s ability to compete should not be assessed by looking at only the profitability of specific plans, but rather by looking at all of the wireless plans it offers.” While the CRTC wants to see lower-priced plans, it also needed to consider the potential negative consequences of lower rates on sustainable competition, and incentives for investment.

The Commission referred to the controversial cross subsidization aspect of the Rogers – Quebecor arbitration decision in this Bell – Quebecor determination, saying “that it does not necessarily have to ensure that costs are recouped over the short term for a rate to be considered just and reasonable, fair compensation for the wholesale MVNO access provider is still an important consideration in evaluating offers”.

Quebecor had asked the CRTC to compare Canadian wholesale rates to those found in Europe. The CRTC clearly stated European wholesale roaming rate structures “have very limited comparative value given the different contexts in which European and Canadian carriers operate, resulting in different cost structures.” Many Canadians have fixated on international comparisons that have such “limited comparative value” precisely because of the “different contexts in which European and Canadian carriers operate”. It was somewhat encouraging to see the CRTC explicitly discount such comparisons.

Finally, the CRTC seems to have given weight to the argument that wholesale-based service providers have uneconomic arbitrage opportunities when average rates are applied for urban, rural and suburban traffic. Such rate structures create incentives to build urban facilities but create a disincentive for investment in suburban and rural areas. “Bell Mobility submitted that, on average, a rural cell site costs more to build, while serving less data volume, than an urban one, resulting in higher costs per GB.” As Scotiabank observed in a research note this morning, Quebecor’s favourable MVNO deal with Rogers will result in Bell’s network being used only in areas where Rogers isn’t as strong. This would result in a disproportionate level of wholesale traffic running on rural and suburban while leading to disincentives for either party to invest.

Fostering sustainable competition and continued incentives for investment are clear themes of this wholesale wireless rate decision. To what extent does it provide clues for the way the CRTC will approach revisions to the wireline wholesale framework?

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