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The Competition Bureau received more than 7,000 public comments regarding the proposed $26-billion merger between Rogers Communications Inc. and Shaw Communications Inc., many of them expressing opposition to the deal, the Competition Tribunal heard Tuesday.

Denis Albert, a Competition Bureau employee whose job involves triaging public comments and complaints, appeared as a witness on the watchdog’s behalf on Tuesday, the second day of a weeks-long hearing into the proposed merger of Canada’s two largest cable companies.

Why the Competition Bureau is taking the Rogers-Shaw merger to court

The Competition Bureau is asking the Competition Tribunal to block the merger entirely, arguing that it will reduce competition in the wireless market, resulting in higher prices, poorer service and fewer choices for consumers.

The cable companies, meanwhile, argue that the deal will improve the competitiveness of Canada’s telecommunications industry. Firstly, Rogers and Shaw say that combining their cable networks will put them on more equal footing with their telephone company rivals, BCE Inc. and Telus Corp.

Secondly, the cable companies have struck a deal to sell Shaw’s Freedom Mobile, Canada’s fourth-largest wireless carrier, to Quebecor Inc. for $2.85-billion. Quebecor has said that the deal would allow its telecom subsidiary, Videotron Ltd., to expand beyond its home market of Quebec and challenge the oligopoly of Canada’s Big Three wireless carriers: Rogers, BCE’s Bell Canada and Telus.

The public submissions started pouring in to the Competition Bureau in March, 2021, when the proposed merger was first announced, Mr. Albert said. They were submitted through several different means, including merger forms, information requests and complaint forms.

During cross-examination, Mr. Albert said he did not know how many of those submissions were received after June, 2022, which is when Rogers and Shaw announced their agreement with Videotron.

The Competition Bureau said in its opening statements on Monday that selling Freedom, which operates in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, to Videotron would leave Freedom a weakened wireless competitor because Rogers would acquire a number of Shaw’s assets, such as infrastructure and personnel, that currently support the carrier.

Rogers and Shaw countered in their opening statements that Freedom would be a stronger rival under Quebecor’s ownership and that the competition watchdog has been convinced otherwise by extensive lobbying from Bell and Telus.

On Tuesday, Ramaz Samrout, one of the lay people comprising the three-member panel hearing the case, asked Mr. Albert whether it’s possible for internet bots, or software applications that are deployed to perform automated tasks, to make submissions to the bureau.

Mr. Albert replied that the comments that he saw did not look like they were submitted by bots, but noted that he isn’t certain.

Crawford Smith, a lawyer for Rogers, then asked Mr. Albert whether the Competition Bureau took any steps to verify the identities of the complainants.

“For example, you can’t tell us how many of those submissions came from employees of Bell or Telus?” Mr. Smith asked.

Mr. Albert responded that he could not.

Matt Hatfield said that OpenMedia, an organization advocating for widespread inexpensive internet access, encouraged people to send their thoughts to the Competition Bureau in response to the watchdog’s request for comments in 2021. About 3,500 members of OpenMedia’s community did so, said Mr. Hatfield, the organization’s campaigns director.

“These people are certainly not bots – they’re unique individuals in our community ... we watch for signs of automated activity attempting to misuse our tools and block it if it occurs,” Mr. Hatfield said in an e-mail.

Mr. Hatfield also noted that OpenMedia was not responsible for an apparent campaign to send unsolicited e-mails to the Competition Tribunal. During Monday’s hearing, Paul Crampton, the Federal Court chief justice who is presiding over the hearings, said he and the other panel members hearing the case had been flooded with e-mails urging them to block the merger. Mr. Campton called the e-mails, which were sent while the hearing was under way, “improper.”

The other witnesses who appeared on behalf of the Competition Bureau on Tuesday included several Shaw Mobile customers, competition law officers and Sudeep Verma, the owner of 15 Freedom Mobile stores in Ontario.

Mr. Verma said that Shaw’s acquisition of Freedom Mobile (then called Wind Mobile) in 2016 benefited the carrier, as Shaw made significant investments in advertising and the wireless network, which enabled Freedom to start selling iPhones.

The announcement of the merger between Rogers and Shaw was like a “bullet to the side,” Mr. Verma said, noting that since the deal was announced, Freedom store owners have been in a “holding pattern.” They have been advised to move their store leases to month-to-month and are having difficulty stocking their stores with phones, Mr. Verma said.

He noted that he is “cautiously optimistic” about Videotron acquiring Freedom Mobile, but has not yet heard from Videotron’s executives what the company’s plans for Freedom Mobile are.

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