Canadian wireless prices still high by most standards; ISED chided for ‘spin’

TORONTO — The federal government was chided Wednesday for taking a positive “spin” on Canadian wireless service prices when it released an annual comparison with other countries this week.

Under a headline that said “Cellphone plan prices drop for millions of Canadians,” a press release issued by the Department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development said the government recognized many Canadians think wireless prices are too high but also highlighted “positive trends” that are emerging.

It said some low-use mobile plans — which had voice service but no data included — were cheaper in Canada than in the United States for the first time since 2013.

However, it didn’t mention that Nordicity Group Ltd., which was commissioned to do the annual comparison, also found Canadian wireless telephone prices were the world’s highest in half of the six service levels measured — and second- or third-highest in the other three.

“I found the government’s spin on the results unfortunate,” said Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and frequent commentator whose research focuses on the telecommunications industry.

“Canadians are well aware of the high cost of wireless and internet services and there is no reason to avoid the issue by trying to put the issue in a positive light,” Geist wrote in an email to The Canadian Press.

The press secretary for Navdeep Bains said the ISED minister has stated in the past, and in Tuesday’s statement, that “affordability is a priority for our government” and has heard concerns from many Canadians.

“Our government remains focused on creating the right conditions to increase competition in the telecommunications industry which will result in more choices, more affordability and better services for all Canadians,” Bains spokesman Karl Sasseville said in an email Wednesday.

Geist said that the Trudeau government is paying a lot of attention to dissatisfaction with the cost of Canadian wireless services but “the Liberals haven’t been quite as confrontational as the Harper government, which did not hesitate to publicly challenge the big telcos.”

OpenMedia, a consumer advocacy group that pushes for lower telecommunications prices, said Wednesday that ”more needs to be done” by the government — although it acknowledged the ISED had ordered the federal regulator to review a decision that effectively prevents Wi-Fi service providers from competing with wireless carriers.

It also noted the Nordicity report confirmed prices were lower in provinces where the three national carriers have more competition — currently from regional services such as Freedom Mobile, Videotron, Eastlink and SaskTel.

“Canadians simply can’t afford to keep paying the price for the lack of mobile competition,” said OpenMedia’s Katy Anderson in a statement.

The CRTC review of its Wi-Fi decision is on-going with a government-set deadline of no later than March 31.

A spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents Canada’s wireless carriers, said in an email that price comparison studies only show part of the picture.

“Wireless networks in Canada consistently outperform those of most other G7 countries on metrics such as 4G download speeds, average mobile connection speeds, number of 4G networks and percentage of population with access to 4G networks,” said Eric Smith, CWTA’s vice-president for regulatory affairs.

In addition, Smith said, Canadians have “a range of choices at a variety of price points” — especially if the selection includes pre-paid plans and “flanker” brands — a term usually applied to such services as Chatr from Rogers, Public Mobile from Telus and Bell’s new Lucky Mobile.

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