Conservatives, the cell phone market, and who can take credit
In recent months, decision-makers have started to listen to Canadians and have begun a desperately needed overhaul of our broken cell phone market. In June alone, Canadians saw the release of a broadly positive CRTC Code of Conduct for cell phone companies, Industry Canada’s subsequent denial of telecom giant Telus’ attempt to take over an independent provider’s spectrum (a crucial resource that had been set aside to enable choice in the cell phone market), and a new framework for the transfer of spectrum.
These decisions, however, followed years of cell phone policy neglect. The shift towards public interest decision-making took place only after half-a-million Canadians joined together to form the pro-Internet community, and made it clear that citizens’ interests need to come first.
Prior to that, Big Telecom’s dominance was left largely unchecked, which allowed three large conglomerates—Bell, Rogers, and Telus—to impose their own kind of regulation on cell phone service. As was revealed by OpenMedia.ca’s study on cell phone users’ lived realities, this lack of public interest-oriented policy-making led to Canadians being systematically mistreated by Big Telecom for a very long time.
The government’s policy neglect
It was only two years ago that then-Industry Minister Christian Paradis was refusing our requests to meet and instead holding closed-door meetings with Big Telecom lobbyists (though to be fair, the Minister’s office did call after seeing our angry press release).
It was also not long ago that Paradis failed to take the step of setting aside spectrum (a crucial resource for cell phone service providers) for small carriers and new market entrants – a strategy that was proven to successfully stimulate affordability and choice in the cell phone market when it was used in 2008. Paradis opted instead for an alternative framework, which the independent providers and OpenMedia.ca warned would not go far enough.
Furthermore, in the run-up to the 2011 federal election, the Conservative Party was the only federal party to refuse to participate in our Digital Future Survey– a non-partisan tool created to help citizens vote for parties representing their interests. And it was not surprising: Based on the Conservatives’ stated positions at the time, they were the weakest of any federal party when it came to policies that would increase access, competition, transparency, and choice.
Encouraging steps forward
Things have changed. Thanks to the voices of thousands of Canadians—telling their cell phone horror stories, demanding choice, and sending policy recommendations to decision-makers—we’ve witnessed a notable shift in the way the cell phone market is being handled.
For one thing, we recently saw some encouraging messages coming from the Prime Minister’s Office. Following the release of the CRTC’s wireless Code of Conduct, for example, these celebratory images appeared on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Facebook page:
Now the CRTC is not the government – it’s an arms-length body that describes itself “an independent public authority” that makes certain rules for telecommunications and broadcasting. Neither credit nor criticism can be given to the government for a decision made by the CRTC (though Parliament can appeal certain decisions if it strongly opposes them). But it’s still very exciting to see the government in power celebrating the release of strong citizen-centered rules for the cell phone market.
A few months after the Code’s release, Canadians also welcomed the appointment of a new Industry Minister, James Moore. As OpenMedia.ca founder Steve Anderson wrote:
I for one welcome Mr Moore to his post, and look forward to working with him on the digital policy priorities that matter to Canadians. As some commentators have pointed out, Christian Paradis was likely demoted from the post due to the telecom policy neglect and incoherence that occurred under his watch.
James Moore is widely seen as a heavyweight within Cabinet and the Conservative Party, and I believe it’s a positive sign for Canada’s digital future that the Prime Minister has named him as our Industry Minister. His appointment will raise expectations that the government will finally take the bold action required to open our communications networks to new more affordable services for Canadians.
Moore has already set a positive tone for telecom policy in Canada. When the Big Three launched a misleading advertising campaign to convince Canadians that fixes to our dysfunctional cell phone market are somehow unfair to them, Moore quickly took a stand in defence of the push for choice. He wrote:
... I do not believe the public is misinformed. I think Canadians know very well what is at stake and they know dishonest attempts to skew debates via misleading campaigns when they see them. Equally, Canadian consumers know instinctively that more competition will serve their families well through better service and lower prices.
It’s been an incredible turn of events.
Showing they’re serious
The government has shown that they are finally starting to listen to Canadians, and are now interested in moving the cell phone market in the right direction. But to really show they’re serious about our digital future, there’s much more they need to do. As our own David Christopher writes:
The best long-term solution for choice and lower prices is for Minister Moore to open Canada’s locked-down wireless networks to independent new service providers. This would mean innovative providers such as Toronto-based Ting.com could offer affordable services to Canadians without needing to build an entire nationwide network of their own.
Open networks are the best way to ensure choice and affordability – as the experience of the UK, Australia, and New Zealand has proven. Canadians are looking to Minister Moore to take action on our crowd-sourced road map forward for our wireless market.
Further recommendations can be found in OpenMedia.ca’s report, Time for an Upgrade, which was based on input from cell phone users across Canada.
The fact remains that Canadians pay some of the highest prices in the industrialized world for cell phone service, and face systematic mistreatment from the Big Three. This is because only three giant conglomerates control over 93% of our wireless market.