Public interest advocates say the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) affordable mobile wireless services decision is “extremely disappointing” and a “slap in the face.”
The CRTC announced on December 17th, 2018 that Canada’s Big Three, Bell, Rogers and Telus, will begin offering a range of lower-cost data-only mobile wireless mobile plans in the next 90 days, or by the end of March.
A press release said that new plans will range “from as low as” $15 CAD for 250MB to $30 for 1GB of monthly data, and that includes a mix of prepaid and postpaid options on 3G and LTE networks.
The new decision comes from a CRTC announcement in March stating there was a gap in the wireless market for lower-cost data-only plans, which then the CRTC subsequently launched a hearing that involved the Big Three, research groups, and wireless service advocates.
Dwayne Winseck, director of the Canadian Media Concentration Research Project, said this decision was “coming in worse than expected,” adding the CRTC basically copied and pasted from the proposals made by the three national carriers during the second round of proposals, “and even then coming up short.”
“I couldn’t quite believe it. When I looked at Bell’s second intervention, its revised offering was actually higher than what the CRTC came out with. The CRTC came in about half of what Bell was offering for 15 bucks,” Winseck said.
Winseck, who is also a Carleton University professor, and Benjamin Klass, submitted proposals for low-cost data-only plans that was dubbed the ‘CRTC Flex Plan.’ That plan would have allowed people to access a small amount of data (250MB) at the entry-level price of $5 CAD per month, or larger amounts of data at regular market price.
Winseck said he felt the CRTC “ignored the public record” which was full of empirical evidence, adding that this decision will put Canada further behind in the international community on access to affordable mobile services.
“[The decision] says we don’t give a damn about what the evidence says and we weren’t going to take the evidence and put pressure to get improved outcomes,” Winseck said.
Laura Tribe, Open Media’s executive director, said many people were aware that was going to be a “Band-aid solution” that was never meant to fix all the affordability challenges in the marketplace, but to see the actual decision shows that the CRTC’s solution doesn’t give a fair consideration to fixing the problem.
“This solution feels like it is, if anything, perpetuating more problems,” Tribe said. “These plans undercut the plans that are currently on the market and do it disservice to those who need affordable plans.”
Tribe noted that the decision is confusing when it’s matched up against what the CRTC has said in the past about Canadians not being able to afford mobile services.
“This is a tiny piecemeal solution to a much larger problem that it seems the CRTC is unwilling to tackle,” Tribe said, unable to answer why the CRTC is willing to tackle the challenges surrounding affordability.
“It’s very hard, and one of the challenges we have as a public interest group intervening at the CRTC is we are expected to match the data and numbers that the telecos can provide. And in a day in which it has been made clear to us that this current CRTC chair believes is very much about data and about facts, it’s an unfair playing field for us when we are providing lived experiences and to us that counts. That is data,” Tribe said.
Monica Auer, executive director of the Forum for Research and Policy in Communications, said the news was “unexpectedly disappointing,” adding that the commission had received “ample evidence to show” what consumers needed.
“The fact that our survey found that people were getting dinged for costs that they can’t anticipate,” Auer said. “This is a quasi-judicial preceding and the rules of the CRTC requires parties to submit not just arguments about what they want, but the evidence to support the arguments. We brought forward ample quantitative empirical evidence.”
Auer said the CRTC took information it could get from the industry, “the CRTC’s approach is not to analyze apparently the problem to figure out what is right or just.”
Government needs to intervene, remove Ian Scott as chair: Winseck
Before the June preceding took place, the CRTC effectively closed the door on Wi-Fi-based wireless resellers. The CRTC stood by the decision despite being instructed by the government to reconsider its 2017 determination.
It was also the first decision under the new chairman Ian Scott in which the CRTC decided that Wi-Fi first MVNOs — wireless resellers that don’t have physical infrastructure and use Wi-Fi as a home network — could not allow users to ‘roam’ permanently on wholesale data purchased from carriers that do have physical infrastructure.
Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains said it was a “step in the right direction, but more must be done. “True affordability can only come from true competition,” said Bains at the time.
Winseck noted that it was time for the government to intervene with the CRTC’s decision and deliver a directive in order to “overturn the CRTC’s decision.”
“And to keep doing that to register its supreme displeasure and on the face of these things and the CRTC’s decisions are just unacceptable. This is hugely problematic because this is talking about reducing the independent regulators’ autonomy from the government of the day, which I would normally not do, but we are in really bad circumstances with this current chair so unusual steps need to be taken,” Winseck said.
He also added that it might be necessary and the time for “serious consideration of removing Ian Scott as the chair of the CRTC.”
“I’ve never said anything like that ever before in 30 years of doing this and I’m saying it now,” Winseck said.
Scott was appointed chairman in September 2017. Most recently he was the executive director of government and regulatory affairs at the satellite firm Telesat. He was also the vice-president and later lobbyist for Telus, where he held the title of vice-president of federal government relations. He also worked for Call-Net Enterprises, Sprint Canada’s corporate parent that was bought out by Rogers in 2005.
Tribe said Open Media’s attention now is not around reversing the results of the decision but getting the bigger change which is to have more competition in the marketplace.
“This preceding was never going to fix the problem, it’s a disappointment and feels like a slap in the face but it was never going to fix the bigger issue and that’s we don’t have enough competition in the marketplace. We don’t have enough variety of providers to choose from to give us the variety and affordability of plans we really need,” Tribe said.
She added that the government needs to decide what needs to be done and that could mean implementing fair wholesale rates for MVNOs.
With the new decision, plans are set to be in place until early 2019 when the CRTC has announced it will review mobile wireless services. This review will “examine whether further action is required to improve the choice and affordability of mobile wireless services for Canadians, among other issues,” the CRTC said.