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Wireless plan prices, connectivity among big themes at telecom summit

The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The federal industry minister says despite data showing that the cost of telecommunications services has declined in Canada, many Canadians still do not feel the effect.

Speaking Monday at the 23rd annual Canadian Telecom Summit in downtown Toronto, Minister François-Philippe Champagne said he wants to make sure Canadians are aware of improved offers on the market as their cellphone and internet consumption increases.

"Our challenge is for Canadians to feel it," he said during a panel discussion led by Canadian Telecommunications Association president Robert Ghiz.

"Sometimes my challenge is that the data says something, but people would say, 'Well, what about me?'"

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Ghiz highlighted Statistics Canada data showing cellphone plan prices have come down around 50 per cent in Canada over the past five years, including 26 per cent over the past year.

"I know a politician and a government will never declare mission accomplished," said Ghiz, whose association represents carriers and manufacturers in the industry.

"But will you at least take a little credit, and perhaps (give) a little to the industry?"

Champagne said he was happy about the numbers, which capture the latest plan offers on the market, but acknowledged they don't reflect the prices paid by those still on legacy cellphone and internet plans.

"The prices of cellphone and internet is a staple in the budget of most Canadian families and it's a big-ticket item, so people are rightfully — not just in Canada, I would say in different parts of the world — concerned," said the minister.

In an interview, Champagne said part of the solution lies in encouraging carriers to proactively inform their existing customers when there's an opportunity for them to reduce their monthly bill through a newly available plan.

But critics have also argued that despite many of those new plans allowing customers to pay less per gigabyte of data, some require customers to purchase large amounts they may not necessarily need.

"We need to make sure that carriers have plans that would be adapted to the needs of different people depending on their usage," the minister said.

"If all these plans exist and there's a feeling that people don't see it, it's probably because everyone needs to do a better job to inform people about what's available."

Meanwhile, a new report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, commissioned by the telecom association, said Canada's telecommunications sector spent $11.4 billion in capital investments in 2023 to expand wireless and broadband networks. That amounts to 43 per cent more per subscriber, on average, than carriers in the U.S., Japan, Australia and Europe.

The report, released Monday, said the sector contributed $80.8 billion to the Canadian economy last year while supporting nearly 782,000 jobs.

Along with the state of the regulatory environment, topics on the agenda for this year's conference include cybersecurity and AI threats, along with how satellite technology can bridge connectivity gaps in rural and remote regions.

During his address, Champagne announced the federal government will launch a consultation on how to expand wireless services through satellite technology.

Despite the money being spent to expand networks, he said connectivity barriers remain for those in rural and remote regions in Canada.

"This is the next frontier where Canadians will be able to use their current phone, or basically the next version of it, to be able to have absolute connectivity," Champagne said.

With natural disasters on the rise, he said it would also serve as a form of network resiliency when traditional networks go down due to power outages.

Some of Canada's carriers have already begun exploring satellite connectivity.

Ghiz said it is "essential" for carriers to benefit from a stable regulatory environment which encourages investment in order to sustain high spending.

During a separate presentation, Quebecor Inc. CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau emphasized more changes are needed when it comes to regulations in order to foster competition and bring prices down.

Péladeau, whose company has been expanding its Videotron subsidiary after the purchase of Freedom Mobile last year, has vowed to build out 5G networks across Canada in the coming years. In the meantime, the company is taking advantage of the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) framework put in place by the CRTC, which allows telecoms to offer cellphone service through rival carriers’ networks.

The rules are meant to increase cellphone competition by giving regional carriers a presence in regions they did not previously serve, with requirements to build their own networks in those areas within seven years.

But Péladeau said Quebecor is being held back by "outdated" rules, such as those allowing incumbent carriers to offer service to customers at a retail cost below the rate that wholesalers pay for network access.

"We're not parasites and we're not going to be on others peoples' network and do things that are not going to create value," he said.

"The condition is to build, but before building you need to have access. We need to make sure that the roaming charges behind that will also fall. If not, then we will not have the proper conditions to continue to foster competition."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2024.

Companies in this story: (TSX:QBR.B, TSX:BCE, TSX:T, TSX:RCI.B)

Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press