Now that the threat of a U.S. carrier entering the Canadian market has dissipated, Canada's dominant cellular providers have toned down their rhetoric on the topic of government intervention.
They still want to protect the current business model – one that favours investment in actual infrastructure over simply reselling airtime purchased on a wholesale basis – but say they can compete no matter what structure emerges.
At an investor conference in Toronto, Bank of Montreal analyst Tim Casey asked the chief executives of BCE Inc., Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. about policies Ottawa hopes will spur the emergence of a fourth carrier, including rules for an auction of cellular airwaves and much lower mandated rates for wholesale roaming access.
Their responses were almost sanguine compared to the public campaign they mounted last summer over the possibility Verizon Communications Inc. could buy into the country and win what they called an unfair advantage due to auction rules.
"We're just going to keep reacting to these issues as opposed to spending a lot of energy trying to change them. … We'll just have to compete with whatever structure we're given," BCE's George Cope said Tuesday. (BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
Telus CEO Joe Natale similarly noted his company has managed regulatory challenges in the past and will continue to do so.
"We can't completely control the regulatory environment, we can't control the emergence of a fourth player or how a fourth player emerges," he said. "If we focus on fundamentals, we can work our way through things that might happen down the road from a regulatory point of view."
Guy Laurence, the former Vodafone UK Ltd. executive now in charge at Rogers, was more feisty, asserting that it is a "very brave government that starts to tinker" with an industry that offers services in a country that is geographically hard to cover.
Yet, he too contended that a fourth player would struggle to challenge Rogers on network quality, concluding, that he could rely on his company's value proposition to compete.
Industry analysts who asked not to be named said that the comments were a departure from the highly charged accusations the Big Three traded with the federal government last year.
The shift could be due to the fact that confrontation has not worked so far – Ottawa has not backed off efforts to encourage wireless competition – and it may be time to play nice.
The companies may also have softened their tone because the current theory is one or more financial backers (and possibly Quebecor Inc.) could consolidate capital-starved Wind Mobile and Mobilicity and take advantage of regulatory perks to mount a challenge to the Big Three. That's arguably a lot less threatening than Verizon heading north.
The companies will have to make their case on domestic wholesale roaming – the rates carriers charge their competitors to roam on each others' networks – at a hearing before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications commission beginning Sept. 29.
While they seem resigned that the hearing could result in low mandated rates for wholesale access, the executives argue that the "facilities-based model" should still be respected. That would mean only players that invest in infrastructure and build networks could take advantage of those rates, while wholesale resellers could not.