One day into the job as president and CEO of BCE Inc., it’s already clear what Mirko Bibic’s most important task is.
The 52-year-old lawyer will have to steer the telecom company through a thicket of politics and regulation. Canadian wireless prices are seen as high – a 2018 federal study from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada found that the country has some of the highest prices in the world, with residents paying an average of $75.44 for unlimited talk-and-text with two gigabytes of data, compared to the $61.26 paid by Americans.
Mobile prices have been on the decline lately, according to a report published by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last month, thanks in part to competition on plans that offer large amounts of data. But the sector still finds itself in the crosshairs of Ottawa, with the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens all proposing measures in last fall’s federal election to rein in cellphone bills. In his mandate letter to Industry Minister Navdeep Bains last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau instructed the minister to use “all available instruments” to reduce the average cost of cellphone bills by 25 per cent.
That includes expanding the presence of mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) – smaller companies without their own networks – in the market.
Mr. Bibic “fundamentally disagrees” with the notion that Canada’s cellphone prices are too high. “Prices have come down quite significantly over the last couple of years,” he said.
It will be his job to make the case why those prices are justified and to protect BCE’s cash flow and its ability to fund the building of fifth-generation wireless networks, with or without equipment supplied by Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. “We’re on the cusp of a new era of communications,” Mr. Bibic said in a telephone interview from the company’s Montreal office on Monday. “If you think of things like 5G, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, smart cities, smart homes – all of that is really going to propel the modern Canadian economy, and at the heart of all that are communications networks.”
As a former regulatory lawyer, Mr. Bibic is an unusual choice for chief executive. The Quebec native served as managing partner of Stikeman Elliott LLP’s Ottawa office before following his mentor at the firm, Lawson Hunter, over to BCE in 2004, where he became vice-president of regulatory affairs.
Chief executives traditionally come from a financial or accounting background, says Calin Rovinescu, president and CEO of Air Canada. But BCE’s board, of which Mr. Rovinescu is a member, was purposeful in choosing someone of Mr. Bibic’s ilk.
“We think that in this industry, someone who is going to be a leader here has to have deep roots in the regulatory environment and deep roots with government," said Mr. Rovinescu, who was also once a managing partner at Stikeman Elliot.
Mr. Bibic was born in Montreal and grew up in nearby Longueuil, Que., in what he describes as a blue-collar family. His father, an immigrant from Serbia, worked as a carpenter, while his French mother was an administrative assistant.
“We were careful and we lived within our means and it was comfortable,” Mr. Bibic said.
That sensibility has stayed with him over the years, even as his career has taken off and his pay has climbed. (BCE’s 2019 proxy circular indicates that Mr. Bibic received $4.2-million in total compensation in 2018.)
Paul Collins, who attended law school at the University of Toronto with Mr. Bibic, recalls how, during a recent dinner at a steak house, Mr. Bibic opened the menu and remarked, “God, this is expensive.”
“I said to him, ‘Yeah I think we can afford it,' " said Mr. Collins, a partner at Stikeman Elliott.
Mr. Bibic first came onto the radar of the business community in 2012, during BCE’s acquisition of Astral Media Inc. The CRTC initially blocked the $3.38-billion takeover – but that didn’t dissuade Mr. Bibic and then-CEO George Cope.
The two parties had to work for another year to get the deal approved, but throughout the process, Astral Media Inc.'s co-founder Ian Greenberg was impressed with Mr. Cope and Mr. Bibic’s perseverance. “I never lost faith in their ability to do what we had to do to conclude the deal,” he recalls.
The deal was approved the following year, after BCE’s media division agreed to sell off the Montreal-based broadcaster’s stake in a number of specialty channels and English-language radio stations.
“There’s always a solution to the most vexing problems," Mr. Bibic said.
Meanwhile, the issue of whether national carriers should be forced to sell network access to wireless resellers will be the subject of a public hearing before the CRTC next month. The Big Three telecom companies – BCE, Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. – have long opposed mandatory MVNO access, arguing that such regulations have not worked well in Europe and would create a disincentive to make investments in 5G.
“It’s been proven that when regulators are overly interventionist in their regulatory decisions and the balance tilts the wrong way towards intervention rather than towards promoting investment, that networks do suffer,” Mr. Bibic said.
Complicating matters further for BCE is Ottawa’s cybersecurity review of Huawei, which is expected to determine whether the Chinese telecom giant can continue selling 5G equipment to Canadian carriers after the U.S. and Australia expressed concerns that the company could be compelled to assist Beijing in spying on Western networks.
The ruling will be crucial for BCE and its competitor Telus, which have both spent significantly on Huawei gear in their existing wireless networks and have yet to select equipment vendors for 5G.
Mr. Cope had previously expressed optimism that Canadian carriers will be permitted to use Huawei equipment for their 5G networks, so long as the gear is restricted to the radio-access portion of their networks, which lies outside the “core” of the network where sensitive information is stored. That’s the approach that BCE has taken in its existing networks, as per government requirements.
Mr. Bibic shares Mr. Cope’s optimism.
“The ideal state for wireless providers is to have as many choices as possible among high-quality equipment manufacturers,” he said. But, he added, BCE will be "ready to move ahead with 5G in any scenario.”