Some of the country's largest wireless carriers are urging the CRTC not to regulate roaming rates, arguing that doing so risks hurting consumer choice.
Among the most vocal on that front was BCE Inc., which told the federal telecom regulator that the Big Three wireless companies charge Canadians lower fees for data roaming in the U.S. than AT&T Inc. charges in Canada.
For nearly 20 years, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has avoided regulating wireless rates, including roaming fees, on the basis the industry is competitive enough to keep fees in check.
But roaming rates have become a hot-button issue for consumers with some 18 million Canadians crossing the U.S. border each year, and in August the CRTC informed carriers that it planned to conduct a more detailed study of roaming rates to assess their impact on competition. Carriers had until Sept. 27 to provide the regulator with a slew of details, including copies of all roaming agreements.
Some carriers took the opportunity to stress there is no need for regulation.
"The rates paid today by Canadians roaming in the U.S. and internationally are in line with and in many cases lower than the rates paid by Americans roaming in Canada," said BCE's submission. "For example, subscribers of Bell Mobility, Telus, and Rogers each pay lower pay-per-use rates for data roaming in the U.S. than subscribers of AT&T and T-Mobile pay for data roaming in Canada, and lower rates for data roaming in the UK, France, China, or Japan than subscribers of AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile."
Although BCE complied with the CRTC's request, it told the regulator "we believe the Information Requests themselves and any related process the Commission may be considering are without legal foundation," while later adding that re-regulation "will inevitably reduce choice for consumers."
In September, BCE slashed its U.S. roaming rates on its most popular plans by 50 per cent. Rogers Wireless Communications Inc., which announced a new $7.99 U.S. roaming package earlier this year, recently applied that same price, which provides a user with 50 MB of data per day, to its customers using new LTE smartphones via a new roaming agreement with AT&T. (BCE owns a 15 per cent stake in The Globe and Mail.)
"The cost of U.S. roaming for consumers continues to fall and the introduction of mandated device unlocking and data roaming caps will give consumers more competitive options and more control over their expenditures," added BCE.
Telus Corp., meanwhile, argued the CRTC simply lacks the authority to regulate U.S. roaming rates.
"It is also important to note that retail roaming rates for customers when roaming in the United States are set based on the wholesale roaming arrangements that Canadian carriers, including Telus, have negotiated with U.S. roaming partners. Those arrangements pertain to services provided in the United States, and are therefore outside the purview and jurisdiction of the Commission," reads Telus's submission.
"It would be problematic if U.S. retail roaming rates were subject to Commission rate regulation because the underlying wholesale rates are beyond the jurisdiction of Commission regulation."
But some carriers suggested that relying on market forces alone does not always result in robust competition.
"We note that a number of international/US carriers have roaming agreements with Wind Mobile that enable roaming on the Wind Mobile network. Unfortunately, the Canadian incumbent wireless carriers often attempt to lock carriers into the steering of roaming to the incumbent networks, making it very difficult for WIND Mobile to attract inbound roamers," Wind Mobile told the CRTC.
The CRTC's new wireless code, which takes effect on Dec. 2, already includes measures to prevent bill shock for Canadians who use their smartphones while travelling abroad. For instance, international data roaming charges will be capped at $100 a month.
Although some analysts speculate the CRTC plans to regulate roaming rates in the future, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais recently said it would be "premature" to jump to conclusions about what the CRTC might do with the information.
"Our information about what's happening in the wireless sector, generally, is less than perfect. And that's why recently commission's staff asked [for] detailed information … about what's happening in the roaming market," Mr. Blais said in an interview last week.