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opinion

Every corporate dollar spent on lawyers is one less dollar to spend on improving Rogers networks, writes Andrew Willis.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Part of Dave Leitch’s job is ensuring 44,000 people on Vancouver Island and the B.C. coast have access to high-speed internet.

That gives the civil servant based in Campbell River a professional interest in the boardroom battle for control of Rogers Communications Inc. fought 235 kilometres away in the B.C. Supreme Court. After all, Rogers pledged $1-billion for internet services to rural and Indigenous communities in Western Canada if federal regulators approve its proposed $26-billion takeover of Shaw Communications Inc. – which has extensive operations on Vancouver Island.

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Mr. Leitch, chief administrative officer of B.C.’s Strathcona Regional District, said he’s closely following the feud – in an interview on Friday, he summed it up as “billionaire kids fighting for power.” However, Mr. Leitch said he takes comfort from the fact that the district is not waiting to be wired into a Rogers or Shaw network. He said: “How can all this activity not take away from their focus on the business?”

In late October, Strathcona started construction of a $45.4-million network that will bring high-speed internet to 139 towns, including 48 Indigenous communities, through 3,400 kilometres of fibre optic cable. The network is run by CityWest, a telecom service owned by the city of Prince Rupert.

“High-speed internet is the only way for a rural community that depended on forestry or fishing to reinvent itself,” Mr. Leitch said. Given the major telecom company’s professed commitment to remote and Indigenous customers, he said: “I find it ironic that rural communities face all sorts of challenges obtaining services they need to keep their heads above water, while the telecom companies are fighting it out in cities, or fighting among themselves.”

What seems lost in a Rogers corporate drama that’s putting Succession to shame is the role the country’s largest cellphone and cable company plays in Canada’s economic future. Rogers owns and operates essential digital infrastructure. The company has a history of innovation and is a leader in rolling out the 5G networks that will soon be table stakes for post-industrial economies.

As Edward Rogers, son of the founder, slugs it out in court with the company, his mother and two siblings, every corporate dollar spent on lawyers is one less dollar to spend on improving Rogers networks.

The Rogers family is at odds over Mr. Rogers’s plan to replace chief executive officer Joe Natale and much of the executive team. Those senior managers are now splitting their time between running the telecom and media company and working out possible severance packages with lawyers at boutique Paliare Roland Rosenberg Rothstein LLP.

From the moment the Shaw takeover was announced last March, Mr. Natale and executives from Rogers and Shaw pounded away at the combined company’s potential to enhance internet services in rural and Indigenous networks. Kids would get faster links to schools, businesses could build stronger ties to customers. Rogers made the same pitch to Quebeckers in the spring in its unsuccessful bid for Cogeco Inc.

Over the summer, Rogers executives visited communities across B.C. and Alberta, promising faster networks to mayors and economic development officials, and asking in return for support for the Shaw transaction. The company has made the same undertakings to federal regulators, who are scheduled to hold hearings on the transaction later this fall.

The promises ring hollow when it’s not clear who will run Rogers. Long-time family adviser and former Rogers cable head John Tory, the mayor of Toronto, and a number of other well-intentioned advisers have been trying to strike a truce in this feud for weeks. These cooler heads should prevail, or an approach such as binding arbitration should be used to settle scores, and potentially see one or two of Ted Rogers’s heirs buy out the rest.

If Edward Rogers wants to be taken seriously as an owner of essential Canadian infrastructure, and trusted with the responsibility of providing telecom services to rural citizens who dearly need it, the family needs to get its house in order. Billionaire kids fighting for power is a state of affairs the country cannot tolerate.

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