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Canadian wireless competition won’t happen without a fight

Consumers can expect faster Wi-Fi access from Wireless@SG from April onwards. ((Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images))

I call them the Telecom Avengers: an elite squad of highly specialized law enforcers who fight for truth, justice and the possibility that if you’re sick of being price-gouged by your cellphone provider that you’ll have somewhere reasonably better to go. Like all superheroes, however, the Telecom Avengers are the stuff of fiction, and promises made this week by Industry Minister Christian Paradis to ensure a more level playing field in the Canadian wireless industry seem just as fanciful.

Five years ago the government auctioned off wireless spectrum – the airwaves across which cellular signals travel to connect our calls – to anyone with the millions of dollars to bid on it. It was supposed to be the dawn of a new era, where scrappy newcomers would challenge the established quo of Bell, Telus and Rogers with better plans and more personal service.

As a result, we got the likes of Wind Mobile, Mobilicity and Public Mobile. Although that may seem like progress, major parts of rural Canada still lack adequate cell coverage, dropped calls remain the norm for many subscribers, and the Big 3 continue to control 85 per cent of the wireless market.

Another spectrum auction is coming in November, but this time there is less spectrum available and more players competing for it.

As though anticipating an outcry, Minister Paradis outlined steps the federal government believes will ensure that this time, things will be different. This includes mandatory roaming, so that if you move out of your carrier’s network coverage area, someone else will pick up the signal.

It also includes the incumbents and the startups sharing facilities and resources so that no one has to build more ugly cellphone towers, something that was supposed to be happening all along. Industry Canada also said it would ensure that when one cellphone firm requests spectrum licences be transferred from another, it happens smoothly.

"Wireless services are changing our families, our work, and our economy," said Minister Paradis on Thursday. "Our government's priority is to provide greater wireless coverage at better rates for consumers."

If you’re not convinced, the Industry Canada homepage even shows, among other images, an old man and his grandson hanging out by their truck in the middle of a field, with grandpa talking happily into his presumably well-running cellphone. “Increasing wireless competition to promote better prices,” the caption says.

Steve Anderson is among the doubters. The executive director for activist group Open Media based in Vancouver, he recently oversaw the publication of a report which claims Canadians pay the highest prices around for some of the worst cellphone service available.

“What we heard (from Industry Canada) speaks on the margins of the problems our cellphone market,” he said. “We’re still going to be providing the big three the ability to gobble up most of the spectrum the companies need to deliver services. It’s business as usual more than anything.”

That’s because most of what was promised is based on the government more closely monitoring and showing tough love to the incumbents to ensure they follow the rules from now on. There have been no details, however, on how exactly the government will do this. Random site inspections? Some sort of electronic surveillance? The Telecom Avengers? Canadian wireless customers may still hope for a rescue, but at this point it’s a job that may require some significant superpowers.

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