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Ottawa has regulated telecommunications in Canada since the days of the telegraph. Now, following a surge of complaints from the public, several provinces have effectively usurped that role through a spate of consumer protection laws aimed at the wireless phone industry. Canada's telecoms regulator, Jean-Pierre Blais, suggested this week he has no problem with this. Perhaps it's a rookie error for the recently appointed chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. In any case, he's wrong.

A bit of background is in order: Last year, Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. asked the CRTC to set national standards after several provinces, starting with Quebec in 2010, began adding restrictions and fee caps on wireless service providers to their consumer protection laws.

The provinces stepped in because the CRTC hasn't used its power to regulate wireless companies, asserting that there was sufficient competition in the industry. But consumers have become increasingly cranky in recent years, complaining about three-year terms, service cancellation policies and high fees for using their smartphones abroad, and other irritants. A provincial clampdown on wireless providers made for good populist politics.

Unfortunately, good politics is not always good policy. The carriers aren't entirely opposed to what is in the provincial laws – in fact, Telus Corp. advocated a national wireless code modelled on Quebec's. Their problem arises when those laws differ from province to province, creating a costly, logistical nightmare, as has been the case. For example, Nova Scotia law says that when a wireless contract expires, the service has to be disconnected immediately. Manitoba requires that all documentation be sent in paper form. And so on.

The national telcos are asking the CRTC to establish one simple, transparent, enforceable and national service code. Understandably, then, they were dismayed last month when the CRTC unveiled its draft code, which states that it would co-exist with, rather than trump, provincial law. Even more disturbing were Mr. Blais' views, aired at public consultations this week. After Telus and Rogers officials pushed for the CRTC to enact rules that would supersede any provincial legislation, Mr. Blais replied on Tuesday "Why do you want us to do that dirty work...Why would we...take away an additional option from consumers? Why haven't you taken the recourses in superior courts if you're of that view? You're turning to us to occupy the field, in a way to your benefit, but I'm not sure it's to the benefits of Canadians or the CRTC," he said.

His response is puzzling, and his logic is faulty. By Mr. Blais' reasoning, there would be no problem with provinces enacting laws governing airlines, railways and banks – areas that, like telecommunications, are in Ottawa's exclusive domain. There is no grey area here: this is the raison d'etre of the CRTC.

Not surprisingly, Quebec has threatened a turf war, telling CRTC that a national code would "constitute an unacceptable intrusion into an area that is the exclusive jurisdiction of the provinces."

Oh, Quebec. Here's how this movie plays out. At some point, Bell, Rogers or Telus will find themselves afoul of some provincial law that differs from the CRTC's code. They will challenge the province's jurisdiction over telecommunications, and they will win. Mr. Blais can continue to play cute – or he can start acting like a national regulator. He may see himself as the best friend of consumers, but those consumers should get the same consideration from the CRTC whether they're in St. John's, Ste-Adele or Smithers.


A note to readers: Earlier this week I argued in this space that Telus was "behind the times," based on one of its positions on the CRTC's proposed code of conduct for wireless companies. I believed that Telus's stance on notifying customers of potential charges relating to international voice and texting activity lagged a more progressive pledge by U.S. wireless service providers under their voluntary industry code, adopted in 2011. That opinion was based on a misinterpretation of the U.S. code, and I have since changed my view.

Sean Silcoff is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights, and follow Sean on Twitter at @seansilcoff.

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