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Election 2021: Where the parties stand on cell phone affordability

Lower cell phone bills are on the agenda for some parties this election. Others? Not so much.

With the end of the pandemic not yet in sight, access to affordable wireless services has never been more important. But would you know it by looking at the platforms of Canada’s major political parties?

Here’s what each has put forward on the issue — and our take on what it means for our cell phone bills:


Liberal Party of Canada

Shockingly, the Liberals’ 2021 platform doesn’t mention lowering cell phone prices even once! That’s a stark difference from 2019 when the Liberals promised to lower the cost of mobile Internet services by 25%, even though they failed to keep that promise in the end.

That means the Liberals have NO public position on improving wireless competition in Canada, ending the CRTC’s lockout of low-cost wireless carriers (MVNOs), or protecting Canadians from price hikes by blocking Rogers from buying Shaw.

Justin Trudeau was even given the chance to elaborate on the Liberals’ plans for lowering cell phone prices during the first federal election debate on September 8 — but fumbled. In Trudeau’s response, he cemented that there is nothing of substance on the issue in the Liberals’ platform, beyond recycling the same empty threat from 2019 to Big Telecom to “lower your prices, or else”.

Or else what, exactly? By keeping wireless affordability promises out of their platform, it seems that Canada’s current ruling party has completely caved to Big Telecom and given these companies the green light to keep gouging consumers. We’d still love to be proven wrong — but for that to happen, the Liberals have some serious explaining to do.


Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservatives’ 2021 platform specifically promises to lower cell phone bills — but the details of how they’ll make it happen are cause for concern.

The Conservatives’ platform starts with all the right notes, talking about the need to improve competition, put consumers first, end anti-competitive behaviour in our telecom market, and hold Big Telecom accountable for price gouging. But it goes off the rails when explaining how they’ll do it, primarily by promising to promote competition by enticing foreign telecom companies to enter Canada’s wireless market.

That’s not a fix — that’s just shuffling the Big Telecom chairs around, as our Twitter thread in response explains.

The Conservatives’ won’t say explicitly whether or not they’ll block the Rogers-Shaw sale, but they’ve mentioned they have “serious concerns” about it, and will block mergers that plainly reduce competition in the market. That’s better than zero mention at all, but no party can pat themselves on the back until they issue a concrete commitment to stopping the deal.


Bloc Québécois

The Bloc Québécois platform does not mention cell phone affordability. While Québec’s wireless prices are historically lower than other provinces — in part due to the presence of more competition from a fourth major carrier — they’re still not great by global standards, and we’d encourage the Bloc to look at the issue and make a commitment to addressing it.


New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP)

The NDP’s 2021 platform promises to tackle cell phone affordability through a number of mandates, including requiring carriers to offer affordable, basic wireless plans that are in line with what’s available in other countries, unlimited wireless data packages at “affordable rates”, and setting a cap on telecom prices tied to the global average for telecom service. The NDP platform also goes after unfair sales and service practices by wireless carriers by promising to introduce a Telecom Consumers’ Bill of Rights, although details are limited.

The NDP’s commitment to lowering cell phone prices is certainly welcomed, and judging Canada’s performance and setting targets relative to global peers — NOT our past terrible performance — is a smart direction that any government should follow through on. But their suggested solution leans heavily on mandating price changes and offerings from carriers. 

This is the same approach that the CRTC and the government have tried before, without success. Big Telecom doesn’t play fair; they’ll skirt the rules, and often fight outright, before even thinking about giving up price gouging. And the telecom industry continues to rapidly develop; mandated plans and services offerings tend to rapidly outdate themselves, becoming irrelevant to the real needs of telecom service users as the digital economy continues to take over more of our economy and daily lives. Introducing robust, ongoing market competition is the only way to avoid these risks and sustainably reduce the cost of wireless services in this country long-term.

Disappointingly, the NDP platform does not give any mention to improving the state of wireless competition in Canada, via MVNOs or other means.

UPDATE 10/09/2021: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh announced that the NDP will oppose the Rogers-Shaw buyout — a deal that will certainly lead to higher prices via reducing competition and choice in our cell phone market — becoming the first major federal party to explicitly stand against the sale. Opposing Rogers-Shaw is a great position for wireless and home Internet affordability — and ALL federal political parties should get behind it immediately.


Green

The Green Party platform does not specifically mention cell phone prices. However, it promises to break up telecom monopolies via “changes to CRTC regulation to allow for more equitable treatment of rural consumers”. The Green platform is extremely vague when it comes to telecom promises in general, but refreshingly recognizes the role of the CRTC in reigning in Big Telecom. 

Green candidate Michael Wright (Regina-Lewvan) has indicated that he would stand to reverse the CRTC’s 2021 wholesale rates decision — an overwhelmingly good move that all parties should get behind. But disappointingly, Green leader Annamie Paul confirmed that this is not an official party position.


Plenty of Canada’s governments have promised to improve cell phone affordability for years. And yet, Canadians are STILL paying some of the most expensive prices in the world for wireless services. Several opposition parties have proposed solutions that recognize part of the problem — but none has gotten behind a comprehensive, actionable solution to long-term change. 

We need all of the parties to understand how important affordable mobile services are to Canadian voters — and that increasing competition is the best answer to driving prices down. That’s why OpenMedia has created a platform for candidates that maps out how to lower our cell phone bills — along with more recommendations for fixing Canada’s Internet policy overall. Send a message to every candidate in your riding: Put our Internet back on course!