Canadian telecommunications prices are a reliable pocket issue for politicians, one that is almost guaranteed to feature in every federal election campaign.
This year, the NDP has pledged to impose caps on internet and wireless bills to bring Canadian prices in line with international averages, doubling down on a promise from its 2019 campaign.
Conservatives are taking more of an approach of letting the free market figure things out, promising to stimulate competition by loosening the rules on foreign investment in the Canadian telecommunications sector. (The party has not specified whether it would go so far as to allow US or European companies to buy Canada’s biggest telecommunications, the only major limit under current law.)
Critics of all stripes are divided on whether either idea will work, but some credit both parties for at least bringing something to the table.
This is because the Liberal platform makes no mention of wireless or internet accessibility, a surprising omission after years of promises on this front.
“It is surprising that the Liberals did not offer a plan, especially since the Conservatives and the NDP prioritized affordable Internet on their platforms,” said Geoff White, CEO of Competitive Network Operators of Canada, a lobby group representing independent service providers. Internet services such as TekSavvy and Distributel.
Communications law professor Michael Geist was more blunt, writing in a blog post, “Simply abandoning wireless affordability is remarkable, and it sends an unequivocal signal that liberals have sided with the big three providers. of telecommunications (Bell, Rogers and Telus) by the interests of Canadian consumers and the introduction of more competition “.
So what happened? In the 2019 campaign, Liberals pledged to cut cell phone bills by 25 percent in two years, saying they would save the average family $ 1,000 per year.
At a press conference last month, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh wryly said that liberal leader Justin Trudeau now owes every Canadian family $ 2,000.
But liberals say the job is done, or at least on track. The party has pointed to recent data from Statistics Canada showing that cell phone prices declined 21.4 percent between June 2020 and June this year.
In early 2020, the newly elected Liberal government warned the Big Three that it would use regulations to force prices down if they did not drop within two years. Since then, the government says the cost of most wireless plans offered by Fido, Virgin and Koodo (the discount brands Rogers, Bell and Telus) have dropped between 9 and 25 percent.
Consumer advocates counter that this is in fact part of a global trend of falling mobile phone prices after carriers finished making significant investments in 4G (or LTE) networks and were able to afford to charge less for larger data packets. And they argue that Canadian prices are not falling as fast as those around the world.
Still, the numbers are at least moving in the right direction. And that’s not the only thing the Big Three have done to win the favor of the federal government.
Executives from major telecommunications companies, who meet regularly with government officials, say that relations with Ottawa improved dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the need for strong communications networks just as businesses They pledged to increase spending on rural internet and 5G technology.
This week, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association also noted that StatsCan figures show a decline in prices, while CEO Robert Ghiz added: “There is more work to be done and our industry is currently working closely with governments on all levels to expand network coverage. to the most difficult to serve areas. “
In May this year, in a ruling that many observers called shocking, the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission reversed an earlier decision on the wholesale fees that small ISPs pay to access the networks of big players. The CRTC sided with large telecommunications, citing a policy of support for companies that build their own networks. Bell immediately announced an additional $ 500 million in planned network spending.
Independent ISPs said they would have to raise their internet prices and launched a series of appeals. They now see this election as existential, with the fate of the CRTC decision potentially dependent on a cabinet decision of whoever forms the next government.
That party will also have to make a call to Rogers’ plan to acquire Calgary-based Shaw for $ 20 billion.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole suggested Tuesday that the companies would not face an easy path to approval, stating that his party has serious concerns about the deal and that it will “stand up to Canadian companies and reject mergers that substantially reduce competition. and they lead to layoffs and higher prices. “
Singh has also vowed to “take on the big telcos”, accusing the liberals of allowing the companies to “effectively rip off Canadians.”
Tough speech during an election campaign, sure, but it seems to be filling a surprising void left by liberals.