Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne appears to have acted prematurely when he imposed conditions on Freedom Mobile’s sale.
More than three months after outlining his stipulations to approve Quebecor Inc.’s $2.85-billion offer to buy Freedom Mobile from Shaw Communications Inc., Mr. Champagne is now signalling he has more thinking to do about how to make them stick.
Back in October, Mr. Champagne said his blessing was contingent upon Quebecor keeping Freedom Mobile’s wireless licences for at least 10 years and its ability to lower wireless prices in Ontario and Western Canada. Why did it take his office so long to figure out those provisos lacked teeth?
Mr. Champagne’s 11th hour dithering is creating the impression that Ottawa is not using a rigorous approach to scrutinize the Freedom Mobile sale – much less its broader competition policies for the wireless sector.
Freedom Mobile’s divestiture, of course, is the linchpin of Rogers Communications Inc.’s proposed $20-billion acquisition of Shaw. The former is the prerequisite for the latter, a blockbuster transaction that has dragged on for almost two years.
The federal government has had plenty of time to ruminate about the ramifications of both deals. So, now that the Federal Court of Appeal has dismissed the Competition Bureau’s challenge of the Rogers-Shaw deal, Mr. Champagne needs to be explicit about the criteria he is using to make a final decision.
Instead, he is dropping hints. His lack of specificity is unacceptable because wireless spectrum licences, including those held by Freedom Mobile, are ultimately owned by Canadians. (Spectrum refers to the radio waves that carry wireless signals. Its scarcity makes it a valuable public resource.)
“My role is to protect public interest,” Mr. Champagne told journalists on Tuesday. “I’ll be rendering a decision in due course and certainly making sure that whatever decision is in the best interests of Canadians and that the decision will help to bring down prices here in Canada.”
That’s a nice sound bite. But it doesn’t offer precision about Ottawa’s priorities for a post-takeover world.
Are lower wireless prices its main consideration? Or is it about maintaining a fourth national wireless carrier to achieve political ends? What other factors could sway his decision about Freedom Mobile’s sale?
We’re hearing less from Ottawa these days about improving wireless coverage in rural and remote communities. It’s unclear how much weight Mr. Champagne is giving to that issue as he assesses whether to transfer Freedom Mobile’s spectrum from Shaw to Quebecor.
He certainly has the power to impose stricter deployment conditions on wireless licences as a condition of approving their transfer, so that rural and Indigenous communities aren’t given short shrift on 5G. Is that even under consideration? Canadians deserve to know.
At the very least, Mr. Champagne should be clear with Canadians about Quebecor’s minimum deployment requirements for those underserved communities if it ultimately acquires Freedom Mobile.
All this last-minute hemming and hawing about Freedom Mobile’s fate is pointing to larger problems with Canada’s wireless polices – that they are not sufficiently driven by evidence and it’s unclear how Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, or ISED, measures their success.
“Canada needs clear and appropriate spectrum objectives, with more data, more transparency and more accountability to link policy with outcomes,” reads a recent report from Telus Corp.
“This is in no way controversial. The need for evidence-based policy making and transparency has been expressed by the government’s own expert reports, the auditor-general and the IFSD [Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy].”
It’s easy to dismiss these observations as propaganda from a chief rival of Rogers, Shaw and Quebecor. But who cares if Telus’ position is rooted in self-interest? Ottawa certainly has a problem with transparency.
Don’t believe me?
Just hop on ISED’s website and try to figure out which carriers hold what spectrum and where. Yes, there’s a map but it doesn’t tell us which wireless licences are actually being used. Nor is there any information about long-term pricing trends in specific geographies.
So, how can Canadians ever determine if any of the companies involved in these two transformational deals are living up to their promises to maintain affordable and accessible wireless services down the road?
Sure, he could ask Rogers and Quebecor to sign a written undertaking, but it amounts to a pinky swear if the document is not enforceable. Reverse-engineering weak conditions doesn’t inspire confidence that ISED is protecting the public interest.
It’s time for Mr. Champagne to provide real transparency about how he is vetting the proposed Freedom Mobile sale. Give us the facts. Telling Canadians “I have your back” isn’t good enough.