Groups push for Ottawa to curb the power of Big Telecom oligopoly
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Groups push for Ottawa to curb the power of Big Telecom oligopoly

The nationwide internet outage caused by Rogers last month is the catalyst for a new campaign calling for Ottawa to roll back the monopoly powers of Big Telecom.

OpenMedia and Leadnow are collecting names on a petition looking for change in the highly centralized private systems that effectively overcharge Canadians but also pose a risk, as the July 8 outage demonstrated.

That a problem at Rogers not only disrupted internet and cell phone services to its customers but also had economic consequences on a wide range of businesses – Interac transfers, credit card processing and the like – underscores the need for more competition, at the very least.

Rogers, Bell and Telus control far too much of the market, argues Rosa Addario of OpenMedia, the Vancouver-based civil society organization.

“It became really clear to a lot of people that when one or two companies hold so much power over our critical infrastructures, people really suffer when those systems fail,” she says of last month’s outage. “Whether it be people left without essential connectivity, no access to emergency services, our banking system failing, these monopolies that we have over our systems are set up to bolster and support those oligopolies. Our systems support Rogers, Bell, and TELUS and do very little for people in Canada who need the connectivity.

“Because things have been built so that these companies maintain complete control over our system, they can charge as much as they want for these services. That’s one of the reasons why we pay some of the most expensive prices in the world for internet and cell phone, because these companies know that we have nowhere else to go. They know that we don’t have any options.”

Last month’s outage came at a bad time for Rogers, as the company is trying to merge with Shaw Communications. Consumer groups are opposed to the deal, citing the loss of competition in what is already a market controlled by few.

An OpenMedia campaign against the merger notes the Rogers outage underscores the risks already evident in the system, a problem that would only get worse if the Shaw deal was allowed to go ahead.

The organization points to the largely negative impact of the last major telecom buyout, Bell’s 2017 deal in Manitoba. It’s an example of crushing smaller providers, increasing prices and leaving consumers worse off than they were.

Where the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission is  supposed to be looking after Canadians, the opposite is generally true. OpenMedia notes the telecom industry seems to consistently make the rules at the CRTC, holding hundreds of private lobbying meetings with officials while allowing some of the world’s highest rates for internet and mobile phone service.

For years, the main goal of the CRTC has been to ensure consumers pay overinflated rates to line the pockets of the favoured group of producers and, most importantly, the likes of Bell and Rogers.

That reality explains why the CRTC has failed to protect Canadians from being subjected to the whims of highly-concentrated media conglomerates  – we’re the most concentrated media market in the G8.

Even as the Internet plays more and more of a role in our lives – for better or worse, given the privacy concerns – the big telcos here are intent on taking control, driving up prices and blocking competition. You should be very worried about their attempts to control content and the pipeline, essentially becoming rigid and profiteering gatekeepers.

The key right now is to pressure the government to reverse course, putting rules in place to benefit the public rather than a few big companies. Doing what’s best for Canadians has not been on the agenda.

The new OpenMedia and Leadnow campaign calls on Ottawa to explore all options to reduce the size and market power of Big Telecom, and bolster competition, choice, network resiliency, and affordability for all. Every solution must be considered, they argue, from the government stepping in to provide universal public Internet, to structural separation of vertically-integrated Big Telecom companies, to banning competition-reducing buyouts by dominant corporations. The first, baby step would be blocking the Rogers-Shaw merger.

A US-style system of encouraging mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) – companies that piggyback on existing wireless network infrastructure – would be helpful in providing more choice and lower prices for cell phones, Addario notes.

“The barriers to entering into the market in Canada is something that is a real problem here when it comes to cell phone service. We currently have laws that restrict any kind of sharing on those networks. So in the United States, for instance, there are so many small brands that provide services at a low cost, and the reason they’re able to do so is because they have something called MVNOs,” she explains

“Those are little companies that pay a fee to the big tech firms… in order to be able to use their physical infrastructure and network. MVNOs are not allowed in Canada. We don’t have them, our current laws restrict them.”

The CRTC last year denied MVNOs the right to operate in almost all circumstances in Canada’s cell phone market. That decision was appealed, but in April the federal government chose to uphold what OpenMedia calls the “current price-gouging system.”

OpenMedia and other consumer groups continue to push for more competition in the cell phone and internet fields dominated by Bell, Rogers and Telus, which together control more than 95 per cent of some markets.

“What our government can do in the short term are things like… stopping Rogers from buying Shaw, introducing competition into the cell phone market, and the law reform that would really allow for a market that drives innovation and competition as opposed to operate on the backs of the big three companies who have little motivation to provide any kind of innovative or affordable service because there’s nothing that is going to swoop in and take your competition away.”

The July outage of the Rogers network shone a light on the problems inherent with the status quo, prompting some initial response from Ottawa. While that’s more PR than substance, there’s never been a better time to curtail Big Telecom, make room for more competition and advocate for consumers. Writing to your MP, the CRTC, the PMP and the Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development – as well as the online petitions – can help, but we’ll still be depending on politicians and bureaucrats to do what’s right.

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