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The Conservatives' telecommunications policy is a mess (to say the least)

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The Conservatives' telecommunications policy is a mess. And that's being kind.

(If inclined to be harsh, I'd say Harper is selling out this country to the U.S. and threatening the jobs of thousands of Canadians.)

As part of an effort to open Canada's telco sector up to foreign ownership, and to appear to be defending consumers, the Conservatives are set to give a huge US company valuable public telecommunications spectrum on the cheap.

In a bid to woo New York-based Verizon Communications, the Harper government is forcing Canadian companies to give one of the world's biggest companies access to their existing networks. The Conservatives are also allowing Verizon to buy small Canadian telcos such as Wind and Mobilicity while blocking the three main Canadian incumbents from purchasing these companies and their spectrum.

The backlash against the Conservatives' policy is gaining steam at the moment largely because Ottawa is set to grant a company three times the size of Canada's entire telco industry special rights to the best spectrum that has been made available in decades. In September, Industry Canada will start the bidding process for the 700 MHz spectrum (comprising the band from 698-806 MHz). This bandwidth frequency penetrates buildings more easily and travels farther, thereby reducing infrastructure costs and improving cellphone connections in rural areas as well as elevators, tunnels and other places where service is often spotty.

The Conservatives have set up the auction to restrict the amount of spectrum an incumbent can bid on. The stated aim of this policy is to enhance competition by developing a fourth major player in each market. This is supposed to improve service and drive down prices but if the government were truly concerned about protecting wireless consumers they have the power to further regulate pricing and contract rules.

In their bid to open the sector up to foreign competition the Conservatives have created a situation in which Verizon, as a new entrant, can buy two of the four major blocks of 700 MHz spectrum while the major Canadian incumbents are limited to one block each. This means that one of Bell, Telus or Rogers could be shut out entirely from this valuable "beachfront property."

While this policy is clearly not in Canada’s interest, the idea that social goals should be attached to spectrum is correct. Rather than just sell this valuable public property to the highest bidder, our union supports tying it to job guarantees, improved service for First Nations and to developing not-for-profit wireless initiatives. We also believe more spectrum should be left open for public use.

Canada's telecommunications sector is bleeding job. One major cause is companies moving work to jurisdictions that pay as little as a fifth of Ontario's minimum wage. To put a stop to these job losses, Industry Canada should add job guidelines to its list of non-monetary criteria for those wanting access to public airwaves.

The upcoming spectrum sale should also include commitments to First Nations, who often lack adequate Internet service. In 2009, 41 per cent of 978 permanently occupied First Nations and Inuit communities were without broadband infrastructure capable of supporting inbound rates of 256 Kbps or higher. Yet, high-speed Internet connectivity is important for clinical tele-health, distance education and numerous other public and community services.

The government has already committed 10 MHz of spectrum in the 700 MHz bandwidth to create an emergency wireless network for public-safety services. It should set aside more spectrum for non-profit community/municipal free wireless Internet access projects, such as Montreal’s Île Sans Fil and Fredericton’s eZone, which can't compete in costly auctions.

With 98 per cent of Canada's spectrum already controlled by corporations and government (military, maritime etc.) more of needs to be left unlicensed. Free for anyone to use without government approval, unlicensed spectrum can encourage innovation. The release of unlicensed bands, for instance, facilitated the introduction of now ubiquitous Bluetooth and Wi-Fi devices. When the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. auctioned off its 700 MHz spectrum in 2008 it left some new spectrum available for unlicensed uses.

There is a crying need to establish public-interest-oriented spectrum policies in this country. But that certainly doesn’t begin by giving one of the world’s biggest corporations a discount on buying up our public airwaves.


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