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CRTC widens probe on wireless roaming charges

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced late Thursday that it decided to take that step after a preliminary investigation found that big carriers are “are charging, or planning to charge” smaller domestic rivals “significantly higher wholesale roaming rates” than they charge their U.S. peers.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Canada's telecom regulator has ramped up its investigation into whether the Big Three wireless companies are charging excessive rates to smaller competitors for the use of their networks.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said on Thursday it is taking that step after a preliminary analysis found the big carriers "are charging, or planning to charge" smaller domestic rivals "significantly higher wholesale roaming rates" than U.S. peers such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.

In addition to higher fees, the CRTC said it found that some newer carriers were being slapped with "more restrictive terms and conditions" to secure roaming agreements that allow them to provide service to customers in parts of Canada where they do not have wireless towers. As a result, the regulator also plans to hold a separate proceeding early next year to further probe the state of competition in the wholesale roaming market. Depending on what it finds, the CRTC could intervene with new regulations.

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Taken together with the federal government's pledge to reduce domestic roaming rates during its Speech from the Throne, the CRTC's moves are the strongest signals yet that Ottawa is laying the groundwork for much tighter regulation of BCE Inc., Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc., the three dominant players in the $20-billion wireless market. In particular, the commission appears to be mulling the outright regulation of the wholesale rates that small carriers pay incumbents for domestic roaming. The could affect the retail prices for consumers and improve the ability of struggling startups like Wind Mobile to offer nationwide voice and data plans.

"There seems to be a significant difference in what some of the larger carriers are charging the entrants in Canada compared to what they are charging foreign U.S. carriers when their clients or subscribers are roaming in Canada," CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said in a telephone interview.

"That seems to suggest that there's something that we need to be concerned about and inquire further because, on the face of it, there seems to be a discrimination – whether it's just or unjust is a matter for the proceeding."

BCE declined comment on the CRTC's move and Telus did not immediately answer a request for comment. Rogers, in an e-mailed statement, said: "All of our roaming agreements with domestic carriers are based on negotiated, mutually agreed upon rates. There is an arbitration process in place that all carriers are entitled to use, should they have any concerns, but those carriers have chosen not to avail themselves of that process."

Several telecom executives have privately noted in recent weeks that incumbents provide preferential rates to large U.S. carriers because of the sheer volume of roaming business they provide – levels that domestic new entrants cannot hope to match. Moreover, those deals also ensure that Canadian telecom companies gain reciprocal roaming access to the U.S. market, especially given the negotiating heft of large U.S. carriers. (BCE owns a 15 per cent stake in The Globe and Mail.)

"This is a very positive step for Wind, and it is clear the CRTC has now seen the serious anti-competitive behaviour from Bell, Rogers and Telus and intends to do something about it," Wind Mobile CEO Anthony Lacavera said in a statement. "Roaming is a very significant issue for Wind, and while much-needed regulation at the wholesale level is on the horizon, some interim relief from these practices is required. We want a level playing field against companies with a 30-year head start."

Since the mid-1990s, the regulator has mostly refrained from regulating wireless prices – although this year it created a new code of conduct for the wireless industry that forces carriers to cap data roaming fees at $100 a month.

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"The reality is that when you're a new entrant and your network has limited geographical coverage, and your customers are more and more mobile, that they need to roam on somebody else's network. And therefore to transfer those calls, there needs to be arrangements to do that," Mr. Blais added.

There are also indications that domestic roaming has become a deeply political issue in Ottawa. The government is running a $9-million advertising campaign touting its wireless policies, arguing "Canadians pay some of the highest wireless rates in the developed world."

Underscoring that concern, Jake Enwright, press secretary for Industry Minister James Moore, issued an e-mailed statement last month saying: "Our government believes roaming costs are too high."

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