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James Moore speaks in Burnaby, British Columbia, on July 04, 2013. Mr. Moore is refusing to reverse a wireless strategy that would see potential benefits for foreign players such as Verizon. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
James Moore speaks in Burnaby, British Columbia, on July 04, 2013. Mr. Moore is refusing to reverse a wireless strategy that would see potential benefits for foreign players such as Verizon. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Harper government lashes out at telcos for 'dishonest' lobbying Add to ...

Industry Minister James Moore is firing back at the Big Three telecom players’ PR effort to press Ottawa into reversing a controversial wireless policy, calling it a “dishonest attempt” to skew public debate through “misleading campaigns.”

Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. have funded a high-profile lobby campaign in recent weeks that accuses the Canadian government of offering foreign telecom behemoth Verizon Communications Inc. unfair advantages to entice it to enter this country’s wireless market at the expense of incumbent players.

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Mr. Moore was responding Tuesday to sharp criticism by BCE board member Anthony Fell.

A letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, penned by Mr. Fell and published in the Financial Post this week, accused the minister and his department of arrogance and suggested Mr. Moore, who was only appointed to Industry last month, was not sufficiently knowledgeable about telecommunications policy yet.

The BCE director also alleged in his missive that Conservative wireless policy is merely “a political populist initiative to capitalize on a misinformed public view of Canada’s telecommunications industry.”

In response, the minister published an open letter on his MP’s website Tuesday evening that rejected Mr. Fell’s suggestion the Conservatives don’t know what they are doing.

“I can assure Mr. Fell that our policies were quite deliberate, based on a great deal of consultation with all players – including Canada’s wireless companies – and will serve Canadians well,” Mr. Moore wrote.

“Unlike Mr. Fell, I do not believe the public is misinformed. I think Canadians know very well what is at stake and they know dishonest attempts to skew debates via misleading campaigns when they see them,” the minister wrote.

“Equally, Canadian consumers know instinctively that more competition will serve their families well through better service and lower prices.”

In an e-mailed statement on Wednesday, BCE said: “It’s unfortunate our government views disagreement as dishonesty. A growing number of Canadians are concerned about the wireless loopholes and it’s time for Ottawa to address them. The government simply repeats that it wants more competition. We welcome competition too, everyone obviously does, but Canadians need to hear how Ottawa plans to ensure a fair and competitive wireless marketplace."

The Big Three’s “Fair for Canada” advertising campaign features clips of Canadian telecom employees lamenting how the federal government is “selling us out” to a “big U.S. cellphone company.”

They’re urging Ottawa to change what they call “loopholes” in the government’s wireless policy.

The Big Three have run full-page ads in newspapers across the country and have encouraged thousands of their own employees to embark on letter-writing campaigns directed at politicians in Ottawa.

Specifically, the carriers oppose federal rules that would give potential new-entrant carriers like Verizon the ability to acquire small players, such as Wind Mobile and Mobilicity, at deeply discounted prices since Canadian incumbents are banned from bidding in a competitive process.

They also oppose rules that would allow Verizon to bid on two blocks of “prime” spectrum in the 700 MHz auction in January, while incumbents are limited to one prime block apiece.

Lastly, they want Mr. Moore to force Verizon or any other well-financed foreign telecommunications company to build out its own network infrastructure across the country – including in rural areas. Currently, under mandatory access rules, Verizon could piggyback off of existing network infrastructure – albeit at commercially negotiated rates.

“It’s very clear that Verizon does not need government handouts. It is four times the size of Bell, Telus and Rogers combined,” said BCE chief executive George Cope on a conference call last week.

In his letter to Mr. Harper, Mr. Fell also opined that Mr. Moore needs to spend more time considering the telecom file before proceeding.

“For Minister Moore, after less than a month in office, to suddenly become an expert on major telecom policy and make grand pronouncements on this decision without far more detailed analysis, discussion and understanding is quite unseemly.”

Although the telecoms have won the support of the labour movement, including the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, their public-relations campaign appears to have backfired with some consumer groups.

On Tuesday, the Consumers’ Association of Canada said it “compliments” Mr. Harper and Mr. Moore for their decision to introduce “real competition” to the wireless market. Moreover, they encouraged consumers to call or e-mail their local MPs if they support Verizon’s potential entry.

“Consumers are telling us they welcome the new choices Verizon’s entry will bring,” said association president Bruce Cran in a release. “We are hearing also that Consumers are offended by the extravagance of the major telecom’s massive advertising program attacking the Harper Government’s decision.” he added.

For its part, Verizon has declined comment on the Big Three’s lobby efforts.

Mr. Fell identifies himself in the letter to Mr. Harper as a “long standing member of the Conservative Party of Canada and a strong past and present” supporter of the Harper government.

Mr. Moore, for his part, says Canada’s major telecom firms should not labour under the false impression that Ottawa does not understand what they are saying.

The government, which has repeatedly championed the cause of lower cellphone bills, says it’s determined to stay the course.

“Our policy is designed to benefit Canadian consumers, first and foremost – and our policy will achieve this goal,” the minister wrote.

“At times, Canada’s telecommunications firms have agreed with our reforms, at other times they have disagreed, but at no point have their views not been understood by our Government or not been incorporated into our policy deliberations.”

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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