Canada can’t research its way out of the wireless wars

“As far as I know, we have one piece of research that’s completely independent, and that’s mine. Nobody is standing behind me.”

That bold claim comes from Dwayne Winseck, a professor in the school of journalism and communication at Carleton University, and the research he’s talking about is a 60-page report entitled Mobile Wireless in Canada: Recognizing the Problems and Approaching Solutions. Probably more controversial than anything within its pages, however, is the notion that scholarship skill matters in this particular debate, no matter how pure its origins.

Winseck recently updated his initial report, which argues that the incumbents, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) and several high-profile newspapers are wrong about the state of competition for smartphone services. This came in response to the data and statistics in research from the University of Calgary and others that suggested that most Canadians are already well-served. According to the report, this amounts to something close to an industry conspiracy:

“In Canada the circles involved in discussing wireless issues are exceedingly small and they like to hear the sound of one another’s voices all too much, and their members do not look kindly on those who might rock the tight oligopoly that has ruled the industry from the get-go.”

In a phone discussion, Winseck is even more blunt about the campaigning by the incumbents this past summer and why the upcoming spectrum auction may do little to change things for the better.

I think we’ve blown a really big chance,” he said. “The prospect of Verizon coming in was one of the best opportunities we had to usher in a new world, and they knew it, and they went to the wall and sabotaged it.”

The report offers some intriguing international examples of how governments have stimulated wireless competition by setting minimal technical standards and regulating prices, for instance, or forcing companies to give up a portion of spectrum if they merge or acquire each other.

Yet with Verizon now a moot point, and organizations like the Catalyst Capital Group deciding to bow out of the auction, it’s difficult to imagine what the impact of a study like Winseck’s will have. If actions speak louder than words, the wireless wars may have proven rhetoric speaks louder than research.

“I hope that it will embolden policy makers and people within Industry Canada,” he says, adding that the facts should still be able to speak for themselves. “In some ways it’s great (the wireless competition debate) is ideological, because if you’re not an ideologue, you win.”

More than any of the data in his report, I hope Winseck is right about that.

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