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Ottawa cracks down on wireless providers over roaming fees

Wireless lobbyists are fighting to ensure net neutrality never applies to mobile networks

Following up on a promise during its throne speech last October to make Canadian wireless services more consumer-friendly, the Harper government announced plans today to tighten the rules surrounding domestic roaming rates.

“The roaming rates that Canada's largest wireless companies are charging other domestic providers can be more than 10 times what they charge their own customers. For too long, Canadian consumers in the wireless sector have been the victims of these high roaming costs,” Industry Minister James Moore said in a statement. “Canadians have been clear that they want their government to take action in the wireless sector to provide more choice, lower prices and better service. With domestic roaming rates on networks capped, Canadian consumers will benefit from more competition in the wireless market.”

Moore confirmed plans to amend the Telecommunications Act to limit how much the incumbent wireless carriers can charge smaller, regional players when their customers are forced to roam beyond their own providers’ networks. Under the proposed provisions, national carriers will no longer be allowed to charge other companies more than they charge their own customers for voice, data and text services on their mobile devices. The announcement follows the government’s announcement last week that it was launching an investigation into how national carriers charge smaller players for wholesale roaming access, and a 2012 ruling that forced the national network-owning incumbents to make wholesale roaming access available to all.

The changes set the stage for an eventual permanent solution imposed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. The federal regulator is currently investigating the domestic roaming-charge issue and is expected to make a final decision in 2014. The government has repeatedly contended that high domestic or wholesale roaming charges stifle competition by boxing smaller carriers into a corner.

Ottawa will also tweak the Telecommunications Act and the Radiocommunications Act to give the CRTC the authority to impose fines on carriers that break Wireless Code – introduced earlier this month – and related rules governing spectrum deployment, tower sharing and rural services. The Telecommunications Act will be updated to allow so-called administrative monetary penalties, or AMPs, in cases where carriers violate regulatory decisions, including those related to the Wireless Code. The Radiocommunications Act will similarly be changed to allow AMPs in cases involving license and certification violations.

“Our government is committed to ensuring that companies play by the rules for the benefit of all consumers. Canadian families deserve nothing less,” Moore said. “These new enforcement measures will safeguard consumer interests in the wireless sector.”

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.