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Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, seen here on April 1, 2019, has said he would like the CRTC to consider a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) model, in which players that do not own their own airwaves or build their own networks could rent access from larger carriers and resell it.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada’s largest wireless providers are locked in a fight with the Competition Bureau over its request for detailed information about how they do business, amid growing concerns in Ottawa about high prices in the industry.

The bureau is planning a study to assist in a process launched by the federal telecom regulator that will examine whether new regulations are needed to promote competition and reduce costs for consumers. The CRTC has already said its preliminary view is that the national wireless carriers, Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp., should be forced – for a limited period of time – to sell network access to smaller companies that could resell the service. That would offer new options to customers and potentially bring prices down.

Matthew Boswell, the commissioner of competition, sent a letter last month to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, asking it to order wireless carriers to turn over reams of data – in some cases going back more than a decade – about revenue, subscribers, market share, network performance and profitability.

But the biggest carriers are pushing back, complaining about the volume of information requested and arguing that it could derail the CRTC proceeding and a public hearing set to begin in January, 2020. “The bureau should not be permitted to hijack this process,” Rogers said in a letter filed with the commission.

BCE argued in its own submission that the bureau’s request “imposes an unreasonable burden” on wireless carriers, and warned it could “dominate much of the proceeding to the exclusion of other key issues.”

The federal government has tried for years to spur more competition and reduce prices in the wireless market, without much success. The Big Three continue to control about 90 per cent of the market, and a report prepared for the government last year showed that prices for many cellphone plans in Canada continue to be higher than in other Group of Seven countries.

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains has said he would like the CRTC to consider a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) model, in which players that do not own their own airwaves or build their own networks could rent access from larger carriers and resell it. Mr. Bains has pointed to the fact that wireless prices are lower in provinces where a strong regional competitor to the Big Three operates (for example, SaskTel in Saskatchewan and Vidéotron in Quebec).

An MVNO model could offer consumers more choice, and such arrangements are common in other parts of the world. Canadian carriers, including smaller regional players, have argued that mandated MVNO access would undermine their incentives to invest and build quality networks.

Questions about competition in Canada’s wireless market are not new, Mr. Boswell said in his March 25 letter, adding: “There is currently, however, a focus on such competition issues, including a desire for greater affordability, better service and lower prices.”

In previous reviews, the bureau has found that the Big Three carriers have “market power” in some parts of the country, meaning they control enough of the market that they can charge more than they could if there was more competition. But it says it needs to assess whether that’s still the case and how to address it.

After receiving the BCE and Rogers letters, the CRTC asked other industry players to comment on the Competition Bureau’s request by Tuesday. Responses from Telus, Shaw Communications Inc. (which owns regional carrier Freedom Mobile), SaskTel and Thunder Bay’s Tbaytel were posted on the regulator’s website by Wednesday afternoon.

Those letters also expressed concern about the volume of information demanded, and noted that if the bureau takes several months to produce its report, parties will have little time to respond before January’s hearing.

“In a CRTC proceeding, the Competition Bureau is a party like any other and is not afforded any special rights," Telus spokeswoman Erin Dermer said on Wednesday. “We are concerned that the Competition Bureau’s request does not recognize these limits.”

Eric Joyce, a spokesman for the Competition Bureau, said the watchdog regularly contributes to CRTC hearings and is intervening in this case “because competition issues are at the forefront.”

“We are seeking information because it is relevant to the competition issues considered in the process. The analyses we propose will provide the CRTC with real-world, evidence-based economic analyses to assist it in answering the questions they have posed, which are of great importance to Canadians,” Mr. Joyce said, adding, “The information sought is targeted, and similar information has been produced before.”

Rob Malcolmson, senior vice-president of regulatory affairs at BCE, said if the CRTC accepts the bureau’s request, it will “completely change the nature of the process, shifting it away from telecommunications policy and into something more like a merger review, with little scope for discussions of important issues like network quality, innovation or customer service.”

The bureau has until Friday to respond to the CRTC’s letter asking it to reconsider the scope of its request.

“Commission staff will assess the next steps once all submissions on this issue have been received and reviewed,” CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao said.