The past week has presented some interesting changes in the Canadian Telecom Industry. With the CRTC boldly striking a new direction with its refusal of the Bell-Astral merger(1), Wind Mobile’s internal restructuring(2), and the CRTC’s move to create a national wireless code of conduct(3), things are on the move. The question is whether those moves are good for consumers, corportations, or both?
The formation of a wireless code will be a huge step for the CRTC. It should provide a singular document outlining best practices across the country, superseding individualized provincial codes in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba. Much like Manitoba’s wireless code, the CRTC is undergoing extensive public consultations. Officially, they are planning on using the horror stories that a great many consumers have about wireless carriers to create a path to make contracts easier to understand, similar across provincial lines, and fairer for consumers. OpenMedia has developed an easy-to-use web form to facilitate providing comments and suggestions to the CRTC(4). Although Bell, Telus, Rogers and other telecoms may not be particularly happy about a single code simplifying their lawyer-speak contracts, they too benefit from its creation. Instead of having to tailor individual plans and offerings to follow the restrictions placed by up to 10 different provincial wireless codes, they have a single document to reference as they design their offerings.
The internal restructuring of Wind, announced yesterday, comes as a result of the federal government’s change in foreign ownership rules. Specifically, Egypt’s Orascom (now majority owned by Russia’s Vimplecom), now has a 65% voting stake in Wind Mobile, up from 32%. This voting stake now matches Orascom’s economic interest in Wind, which will make accounts easier to sort out. CEO Anthony Lacavera claims the change doesn’t give Orascom any additional control, which says something about how internal Wind decisions were made by the Egyptian/Russian company prior to the official voting stake change. On the bright side, the simplification will make any mergers with Moblicity or Public Mobile easier, and should make the bidding for the 700-Mhz spectrum auction more lively next year.
The merger of Bell and Astral raised enough of a public cry to twist the CRTC’s arm into defending the public interest of Canadians. It had long been assumed that the merger would go through, despite it giving Bell 45% of the English TV market, 35% of the French TV market, the largest radio station operator in the country, and control of more than half of Canada’s pay-TV and specialty stations. Shortly after the announcement, Bell complained to Ottawa that the CRTC was in violation of its own policies(5), and tried to get Industry Minister Christian Paradis to overturn the decision. Unfortunately for Bell, the Minister “respect[s] what the CRTC said on this regard”(6), which means the Conservatives will not be overturning their decision. The fall-out on the stock market is nasty for both Bell and Astral, but this may be an opportunity for a smaller company to become a contender in the market.
Overall, these three major announcements in the TV & Wireless markets demonstrate a dramatic change in direction for the CRTC, which is usually accused of being very business-friendly, and indifferent (at best) to consumer interests. All three changes in the market are consumer friendly, including the changes with Wind Mobile as they make it more competitive against the giants. But only the changes with Wind and the National Wireless Code are directly beneficial to corporations, though the lack of a merger between Bell and Astral prevents other companies from being eliminated through attrition. Are these changes a flash in the pan, or will we see the CRTC follow its mandate and forge a path of consumer protection? Only time can truly tell.
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