“Consumer Code” Consultation Open for Comments

Today the CRTC announced a new consultation on whether it should consider instituting a “consumer code” to guide wireless providers’ retail services.

Since 1994, the government has operated under the assumption that the Canadian wireless market is “sufficiently competitive” to ensure fair service for the public, and under that assumption has refrained from intervening in the retail market. At first glance it would appear that today the government has signaled its willingness to reconsider this assumption.

Is this announcement an unprecedented step in the right direction? Is the government for once making good on its duty to act for the benefit of the Canadian public? There are reasons to be optimistic, but as usual there are equally strong reasons to remain cautious.

This is by no means the first time the CRTC has held public consultations on policy decisions, as Mark Goldberg points out:

“Recall that Industry Canada just completed a study of the state of competition in Canadian wireless services, as part of its Policy and Technical Framework for the 700 MHz band.”

While Goldberg implies that this previous “study” (it’s a consultation, not a study) makes the new one redundant, I would argue that it’s actually a crystal clear example of why we should be cautious as much as optimistic about the CRTC’s new consultation and the possibility that it could result in better protection for consumers.

We need to be cautious because most of the “evidence” submitted to Industry Canada’s “study” on the 700MHz (LTE) policy consisted simply of wireless service providers grandstanding about how competitive the market already is. As I said before, this is the “study” where Rogers bombastically claimed “The Canadian wireless market has gone from being highly competitive to hyper-competitive.” Echoing that hopelessly self serving idealism, Bell submitted that “Canada is a world leader in wireless on all fronts.” (I doubt they meant to include the highest prices for mobile roaming in OECD countries in that claim).

Somewhat surprisingly, a number of local chamber of commerce organizations responded to the consultation with a ghost written form letter, univocally declaring thatOngoing wireless expansion across the country absolutely depends on a fair and open market auction.”

In case you don’t already know, an “open and fair auction” is Bell-, Rogers- and Telus-speak for ‘don’t stop us from buying up all the spectrum so we can keep out competitors.’ The wording of those form letters is so strongly similar to Rogers’ pre-auction astro-turf campaign “I want my LTE” that to dismiss their relationship as mere coincidence would be imprudent.

A diminutively small proportion of submissions came from public interest groups and concerned private citizens, requesting that the CRTC set aside spectrum for public use or, less ambitiously, that at least open access requirements be implemented in one block of available spectrum. Those types of requests fell on deaf regulatory ears, however, and what we got was a 700MHz auction framework heavily slanted in favour of private corporate control over the airwaves.

Nor does the ongoing consultation concerning how to implement unlicensed “White Spaces” spectrum give consumers reason to put their trust in the “big 3”. Bell and Rogers are today mirroring arguments made stateside over four years ago, when the FCC was going through the same process. The argument goes that devices using unlicensed white space spectrum would interfere with theatre performers’ microphones and football teams’ headsets. The FCC found that these arguments were not credible, and today in the US trials of white spaces broadband are underway, creating exciting opportunities for innovative solutions to wireless broadband deployment.

The same goes for the UK, where white spaces networks are being rolled out to connect underserved communities as we speak.

Yet Canadian telcos are still clinging to these argument years later. LightSquared developed a wireless broadband network in the States using abandoned satellite frequencies, but its plans were scuppered when it was discovered its network would  actually interfere with military and civilian GPS navigation systems.  If Rogers and Bell had a case to be made regarding white spaces spectrum, it certainly would require more than raising the spectre of confused ballerinas and fumbling quarterbacks to be realistic.

Regulatory precedent in the States and Europe will likely outweigh the big 3’s gripes with white spaces here in Canada. But those companies’ unflinching “stay-the course, the sky is falling, won’t somebody please think of the children” approach to regulation still exerts a formidable influence on the regulator. While white spaces might pass muster, too often Industry “regulatory affairs” officers drown out the voice of consumer groups and the public.

At the upcoming consultation, Bell, Rogers and Telus are counting on being the loudest voices at the table.

We Canadians need to use this new consultation as a loudspeaker.

We have reason to be optimistic because the “Consumer Code” consultation gives Canadians a chance to voice our concerns directly to a regulator seemingly willing to listen. Upset about expensive phone bills? Don’t like having to use a locked phone? Tired of paying through-the-roof rates for mobile voice and data roaming? I strongly urge you to write a submission. (Deadline May 3, Proceeding #2012-206)

It doesn’t have to be long. It doesn’t have to be technical. It just has to show that you, like so many other Canadians, are fed up with the underhanded tactics of companies like Bell, Rogers or Telus.

Mark Goldberg nervously wonders:

 Will this CRTC call for comments attract more than what they expected?

I sure hope so.

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