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In wireless auction, Industry Canada’s ‘More Choice’ campaign needs to deliver

Industry Minister James Moore is speaking across Canada as part of a public campaign to defend the federal government's telecom policies. (CBC)

“Oh yes, we’ve been getting a lot of calls about this,” the spokesperson from Industry Canada says. I bet they have.

Tuesday, Sept. 17 -- the day we’ve all been waiting for -- has arrived. And when I say “we,” I mean those of us watching the players in the Canadian telecom space the way normal people watch the NHL draft to see what the action is going to be like.

Sept. 17 was the deadline for firms to apply for a place in the upcoming government-run auction of wireless spectrum, the kind of airwaves that will be used to run next-generation mobile communications across the country.

Unfortunately, the feds say they won’t release the details until Monday Sept. 23, “either before or after the markets close,” the spokesperson says. That’s because depending on who’s hoping for a piece of the pie, the markets may react with panicked violence.

We already know who’s not bidding, of course. The sudden disappearance of Verizon from the scene has left the incumbent players Bell, Telus and Rogers looking like false Davids who have lost their real Goliath. Their “Fair for Canada” marketing campaign that tried to change Industry Canada’s minds on helping foreign players enter the country has gone utterly quiet. So quiet, in fact, that many Canadians may not have had a chance to notice the government’s counter-attack.

In what looks at first like a giant infographic, Industry Canada has set up a micro-site that offers a direct rebuttal to the incumbents’ claims of uncompetitive rules, arguing that its policy is clearly about more choice, lower prices and better service. It outlines six “fictions” that the carriers have been propagating, such as the notion that rural Canadians will be adversely affected if an American telco comes in, or that the government will be costing jobs in the wireless sector.

The Industry Canada site has been amplified by a Twitter account, @ICMoreChoice, to help ensure the government has a voice in the war for public opinion being waged on social media. Like the big three, however, Industry Canada has to figure out a way to demonstrate that, even if there were no foreign bidders among the applications this week, consumers will have some alternatives to the status quo. After the possibility of a Verizon, however, it’s hard to imagine the prospect of a revived Wind Mobile getting anyone terribly excited.

“The incumbents seem to think that Industry Canada, like good little girls and boys, should divide the spectrum neatly between them,” said telecom analyst Eamon Hooey, who suggested the auction’s outcome may disappoint those hoping for dramatic improvements. “ When you’ve got an industry as entrenched as it is, you can’t change it overnight.”

Maybe not, but the government still has a little more time than that. Next week will be about setting expectations after a crazy few months of speculation, and then ensuring the auction’s aftermath establishes some kind of level playing field. No more talking about “fictions.” Instead, it’s time for everyone to face reality.

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