Ordinary Canadians are caught in the middle of a public debate over whether Ottawa's measures aimed at stimulating competition in the wireless industry would give big foreign telecoms like Verizon Communications Inc. unduly privileged access to Canada's air waves.
All stakeholders claim to be defending the public interest. On one side, Canada's Big Three carriers – Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc., and Telus Corp. – are trying to win support for their push to have Ottawa rewrite its wireless policies, warning that jobs, pensions and rural coverage are at risk if Verizon is allowed to buy more spectrum than the incumbents in an upcoming auction and purchase small carriers that are off limits to the Canadian players.
But interest groups claiming to represent the views of the average wireless consumer differ on the issue, muddying the water for that broad-based group.
The labour movement is aligning itself with the big telecom companies, where many of their members work, with at least one union applauding Telus's decision to take the federal government to court over its new spectrum-transfer rules. Consumer groups, meanwhile, accuse the major incumbent carriers of using scare tactics to spook the public, arguing that ordinary Canadians would benefit from increased competition from the likes of a well-financed competitor like Verizon.
Ottawa is eager to demonstrate that its competition policies have led to lower wireless prices for Canadian families with a government-commissioned study showing that prices have decreased 18 per cent since 2008.
In an interview this month with The Globe and Mail, Telus CEO Darren Entwistle cited a recent study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which ranks Canada as the third-lowest among the Group of Seven countries in terms of the cost of 100 calls plus two gigabytes of data. "We've done a crap job of educating Canadians," Mr. Entwistle said.
BCE chief executive officer George Cope said he doesn't believe that Canadian consumers are frustrated, asserting that Bell's satisfaction levels have never been higher. "Our phones are not ringing off the hook," said Mr. Cope said in a July 25 interview. "Our technology is advanced and our prices are competitive."
But not everyone sees it that way. Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, said the industry is in denial about how the public perceives value for the services they are sold. "Maybe they've fallen victim to their own marketing."
St. John's-based wireless customer Liam McKenna, 46, said the telecom market has "languished" under the Big Three providers: "Having lived in Europe, I perceive little value and less-than-acceptable service from these providers in Canada."
On Tuesday, the Consumers' Association of Canada and the Public Interest Advocacy Centre cheered Ottawa's spectrum rules. "Bell, Telus and Rogers are trying to scare Canadians with misinformation," Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada, said in a release.
John Lawford, executive director and general counsel of PIAC, said Verizon has a track record of serving rural communities in the United States and will likely build a national network here. "They've got bags of cash," Mr. Lawford said of the U.S. company.
The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, meanwhile, is siding with the big telcos, warning of layoffs and hits to pension plans if Verizon enters the market. "There is just nothing about [Ottawa's policy] that is pro-Canadian," said Dave Coles, president of the CEP. "I think there is going to be a huge backlash, not just from investors, but from people, when regular people figure out that it is a scam."
Some ordinary consumers concur.
"Obviously, I don't want any special dispensation given to Verizon because they're coming form the States. It's got to be a level playing field," said Calgary-based Joe Chapple, 64.
Verizon declined to comment on the Big Three's lobbying efforts.