Feds order CRTC to review wireless decision

A government-ordered review of a recent decision restricting access to the networks of Canada’s big wireless service providers is being hailed as potential good news for consumers.

But at least one Canadian-based operator of a mobile virtual network (MVNO) in the United States predicts the results of the review won’t open Canada’s wireless market to substantial competition any time soon.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission ruled in March that Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) could block customers of Sugar Mobile, a subsidiary of Ice Wireless, from roaming on its network.

The decision not only effectively paralyzed the startup, but also prevented other smaller mobile service providers from offering cheaper plans and consequently limits choice in the market, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said Monday in calling for a rethink of the ruling.

“This decision excludes Wi-Fi based providers from access to regulated roaming services,” Bains said while speaking at an annual conference in Toronto for the Canadian telecommunications industry.

“And that effectively prevents Wi-Fi based providers from offering their low-cost plans to consumers. This lack of choice does not benefit Canadians.”

Sugar Mobile, which doesn’t have its own wireless infrastructure, relied on the network set up by Rogers to provide service to its customers through a so-called mobile virtual network, or MVN.

In a brief email message, the CRTC said it would comply with the order, being careful to say it would reconsider the “aspect of its decision that established the final terms and conditions for access to wholesale mobile wireless roaming service.”

A spokesman for Bains said the review will also include a second decision issued by the CRTC on March 1 that reinforced its position that wholesale roaming cannot be used as a way to get permanent access to a telecom company’s network.

An advocate for greater wireless choice praised the review, predicting it could result in cheaper services from new low-cost entrants into Canada’s wireless marketplace.

“We’re excited that the CRTC has been asked to look again at this issue and we hope they’ll come back with a solution that will lift big telecom’s blockade and lead to lower prices and greater choice for Canadian consumers and small businesses,” said OpenMedia digital rights advocate Katy Anderson.

“Allowing smaller providers to enter the market will improve innovation, encourage competition, and enable low-income Canadians to participate more fully and meaningfully in our digital society.”

In ordering the review, Bains also made clear he expects any new ruling from the CRTC would not stifle investment by the big telecom companies to keep their wireless networks up to date.

Rogers said it would work with the regulator with the aim of keeping wireless costs down while at the same time improving its service infrastructure.

“We look forward to working with the CRTC to examine creative ways to bridge the digital divide and maintain fast and reliable networks,” said David Watt, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs at Rogers.

OpenMedia pointed to Toronto-based Tucows Inc., which operates Ting Mobile in the U.S. by piggybacking on carrier networks south of the border — but doesn’t offer services in Canada — as an example of a small wireless provider that could help transform Canada’s wireless landscape.

Ting offers wireless service through agreements with Sprint and T-Mobile in the U.S., including talk, text and data, with monthly bills that it says average US$23.

“If one of the (Canadian) providers would sell us network, we would come into the market immediately. We would love to,” said Ting CEO Elliot Noss.

“We don’t expect that to happen in the near term, and today’s announcement doesn’t change that.”

Noss said the mandated review doesn’t appear to open the door to full access to wireless spectrum by MVNOs, and it will likely be a long time before the regulator implements changes needed to ensure access by smaller players.

TekSavvy, which offers home Internet service in central Canada, but has been looking at broadening into mobile service, called the CRTC review “potentially game changing.”

“This is a fresh approach to kick-starting mobile competition in Canada,” said TekSavvy’s chief legal and regulatory officer, Bram Abramson, who noted that Wi-Fi-first carriers in other countries are fostering competition.

“There’s no reason we cannot create the same environment (in Canada).”

Canada’s last remaining independent wireless provider, Wind Mobile, was rebranded as Freedom Mobile after being bought by telecom giant Shaw Communications (TSX:SJR.B) last year.

Bains also announced consultations Monday on the release of spectrum to support the development of so-called 5G wireless infrastructure, something he said is needed to meet demand from Canadians for faster networks and higher capacity for wireless data.

As well, the government released new rules for the deployment of next-generation satellites that it hopes will lead to more high-speed Internet services for Canadians living in rural and remote communities.

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