I support the federal government's objective of ensuring that Canada is a world leader in wireless telecommunications. The good news is: We already are.
We have super-fast, reliable networks. More than 99 per cent of Canadians have access to a mobile wireless network, including the second-largest number of 4G/LTE networks in the world.
We are heavy users. Smartphone penetration is 62 per cent, second-highest in the G7, and Canadian smartphone users generated more than 77 per cent more mobile data traffic per subscriber last year than the global average.
We have many choices. There are currently more than two dozen wireless service providers in Canada and Canadians can choose from term contracts, no-term contracts or tabs for payment.
The wireless sector supports 280,000 jobs, including direct and indirect employment. It generated a total economic benefit of more than $50-billion in 2011. The sector is vitally important to our country's productivity and competitiveness because it helps all other sectors succeed.
During the Great Recession, other sectors of the Canadian economy struggled, but our wireless sector made record investments in new technology and infrastructure. The sector's investment per subscriber was second-highest in the world in 2011, at 260 per cent of the world average.
This success is being driven by consumers. They want and choose premium services on premium networks. There's a reason Canada is a leader in wireless consumption. Consumers have demanded it and companies are delivering it. Canada's leadership position is also the result of industry vision, corporate leadership and the hard work of investors, entrepreneurs, engineers and workers.
The reality is that Canadians are connected like never before – and yet, we want more. Wireless data consumption is projected to grow ninefold from 2012 to 2017. Members of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association are poised to make the investments required to meet this demand – with the right policy choices by government.
Those include: more spectrum to enhance networks, more antenna sites to expand coverage, lower government licence fees and smarter regulations, including one set of rules – not many different ones that raise costs for consumers.
Some point to Europe as a model. Be careful. According to Cisco, average mobile data connection speeds in North America in 2012 were about 75 per cent faster than those in Europe. That gap is expected to increase to 100 per cent by 2017.
I know firsthand that, when it comes to the economy and creating jobs, the role of government must be as much about avoiding interference as it is trying to incent outcomes. There is always a danger of causing adverse consequences tomorrow with a shortsighted focus on today.
Often, the unintended consequence of government regulation is the inadvertent creation of loopholes. That's what our Canadian wireless companies face today. The current rules were originally designed to encourage new Canadian entrants in the Canadian marketplace. Now, they've become enormous loopholes that could be exploited by giant foreign incumbents.
Canada's wireless industry is ready to compete head-on with foreign-owned companies on a fair and level playing field. But close the loopholes before opening the border. Close the loophole that allows two prime spectrum blocks to be scooped up by a foreign company when some Canadian companies can only bid on one each. Close the loophole that would allow a foreign giant to piggyback on the networks built by Canadian companies, instead of deploying its own.
There is no reason for Canada to grant these advantages to foreign companies when Canadian companies wouldn't be granted similar advantages in foreign countries. The result won't be smart regulation for consumers but effectively more government intervention and interference in the marketplace.
Canada's wireless industry is revolutionizing how it does business. Technology is advancing faster than government can keep up. Consumers are more savvy and sophisticated. Old-time, 20th-century industrial policy is not what consumers need.
I'm eager to continue to work with the federal government to ensure that Canada remains a world leader in wireless telecommunications. Let's start by closing the loopholes before opening the border.
Bernard Lord is president and CEO of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and former premier of New Brunswick.