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Bell adds its voice to Rogers dispute with discount wireless startup Sugar Mobile Add to ...

BCE Inc. is weighing in on Rogers Communications Inc.’s dispute with upstart discount wireless provider Sugar Mobile, which is using a combination of WiFi access and cellular roaming to support its business model.

The regulatory tangle revolves around Rogers’s roaming agreement with Sugar’s sister company, Ice Wireless, and Sugar’s attempt to leverage that agreement to offer its own customers cellular access when WiFi coverage is not available.

BCE filed an intervention on Thursday arguing against Ice Wireless’s request that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission grant it an interim order blocking Rogers from terminating that roaming agreement. BCE said it has an interest in the matter and in clarifying the regulatory framework because the outcome “will almost certainly have an impact” on its own roaming services.

Although Ice operates its wireless network in the northern territories, Sugar is marketing its $19-per-month product (which requires customers to bring their own unlocked mobile device) across the country and offering users phone numbers with local area codes.

Rogers told Ice Wireless on Feb. 2 that it believes this arrangement violates the roaming agreement and said it planned to terminate its network access within 14 days (an extension of a required seven-day warning period). The companies took part in a CRTC-assisted mediation before Ice Wireless filed a formal complaint with the commission this week.

Ice Wireless argues that a CRTC policy issued last May permits the arrangement it has in place. In that ruling, the commission stepped in to regulate the market for wholesale roaming services and is now in the process of setting the prices the three national carriers (BCE, Rogers and Telus Corp.) can charge smaller players such as Wind Mobile and Videotron Ltd. to buy roaming access so their customers have service when they leave their carrier’s home coverage area.

As part of the decision, the CRTC also stipulated the Big Three must provide wholesale roaming services “to all subscribers served by their wholesale roaming partners, including the subscribers of any MVNOs operating on their wholesale roaming partners’ networks.”

“MVNO” refers to a mobile virtual network operator, companies that do not own wireless airwaves or build their own cellular networks but instead purchase airtime and resell the service to their own retail customers.

Sugar argues it is an MVNO of Ice Wireless and is therefore entitled to rely on the roaming agreement Ice Wireless has with Rogers.

In CRTC materials filed on Thursday, both Rogers and BCE raise concerns about Ice Wireless reselling its roaming access to customers that do not reside in Ice’s licensed territory and in fact may never use Ice’s actual network.

“These customers are clearly not roaming and have no right to use Rogers. The commission ought not to sanction this type of activity by way of interim relief,” Rogers said.

BCE submitted that Sugar Mobile is allowing its customers to “permanently roam” on the Rogers network and suggested that is likely prohibited by the Rogers roaming agreement.

Samer Bishay – who is the president of both Sugar Mobile and Ice Wireless as well as their majority owner, Iristel Inc. – says the arrangement is within the CRTC rules because Sugar gives its customers SIM cards that are assigned to 867 area codes within Ice Wireless’s operating territories.

He said in a brief telephone interview Thursday evening that Iristel – which is a regulated telecom provider that operates across Canada – then assigns telephone numbers with area codes local to the Sugar Mobile customers. Those are accessed “over the top,” he said, the same way a phone number assigned to a voice over an Internet protocol (VoIP) account with a company such as Skype or Viber operates.

Rogers and BCE also argue that there is no urgency that would warrant an interim order, pointing out that Mr. Bishay told The Globe and Mail on Tuesday that Sugar could still operate if Rogers terminated its roaming access. He said that Ice Wireless has roaming agreements with other carriers in place, but added, “it would set a precedent. Then we would have uncertainty and we wouldn’t know who could potentially do the same thing.”

On Thursday, Mr. Bishay said Rogers is the only company with which Ice Wireless has a national roaming agreement. While the company does have other regional agreements in place, he said, it would leave them without service in parts of the country. “If we lose Rogers, we lose a big chunk of the country.”

The Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Canadian Network Operators Consortium also filed interventions Thursday in support of Ice Wireless’s request for an interim order stopping Rogers from cutting off roaming access.

CNOC lost a separate battle at the CRTC on Thursday when the commission ruled against the industry group’s request to reconsider making it mandatory for carriers to offer network access to MVNOs.

The commission has given Ice Wireless until Monday to file reply comments on the interim motion and has set a March 17 deadline for interventions on the overall complaint.

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