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George Cope, CEO, BCE Inc.

Last December, the federal cabinet made two crucial decisions that affected the future of Canadian telecommunications. The first, overturning the telecom regulator's enforcement of foreign ownership restrictions to give Canadians a new cellphone company in Wind Mobile, grabbed headlines.

The second was decidedly less sexy. The government threw back to the CRTC a decision that would force large telecom providers to share their newer, advanced infrastructure with small competitors in the same way they currently do with their older wired networks.

In week-long hearings that started Monday in Gatineau, Que., the "wholesale" Internet issue began to be revisited, in a process that may eventually decide how advanced technology is deployed across Canada.

The big incumbents say they won't invest in high-speed, fibre-optic networks if mandated sharing with smaller companies erodes return on investment.

But smaller Internet service providers (ISPs), who rent network space and provide Internet services to roughly 6 per cent of Canada's residential users, say they will go out of business without access to much faster fibre networks, and that telcos will continue to invest, regardless, in order to compete with cable rivals.

BCE Inc. president and chief executive officer George Cope employed a Tim Hortons analogy before the commission, saying the regulator was doing the equivalent of making the iconic coffee chain share its brew. The CRTC had ruled that telecom providers such as BCE, which can afford capital intensive network upgrades, must guarantee the same Internet speeds to resellers, guaranteeing competitors de facto spots on fibre networks.

"If they were forced to resell their coffee to Bob's corner store, they wouldn't go out of business, but their business model wouldn't be optimized," Mr. Cope said.

Konrad von Finckenstein, the CRTC's chairman, was quick to disagree. "No it is not. For two reasons. One, Tim Hortons is not part of a network," he said, noting the buying and selling of network space has deep roots. "Second, if Tim Hortons went out of business, it wouldn't be a national tragedy."

After a burst of laughter, participants returned to business. Bell executives said if they were forced to share, the return would be diminished and they simply wouldn't invest. This might exacerbate the "digital divide" between urban and rural Canada, Mirko Bibic, Bell's chief of regulatory affairs, told the commission.

But Andrew Day, chief operating officer of Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc., an ISP with about one million customers across Canada, said it would be forced out of the market in less than five years if it were kept off incumbents' fibre networks.

Consumers stand to benefit, he said, and the real competitive fears come from huge cable companies, not companies like his. "Take their threat of withdrawing infrastructure investment with a grain of salt," Mr. Day said.