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Forget Verizon, let's talk about establishing a publicly owned wireless provider

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The right wing supporters of "free enterprise" in Canada claim to favour choice. Except if that choice includes a publicly owned company to provide your cellphone and other telecommunications service.

Two weeks ago my union called on the Harper Conservatives to rescind a slew of advantages the federal government is offering the giant U.S.-owned Verizon Communications to set up as a fourth major national wireless carrier and to instead establish a Crown corporation to fulfill this objective. The release suggested specific ways of moving forward on a publicly owned company and said the country would be better served by a Crown that hires Canadians, develops technology in this country and uses its surplus to reduce taxes, than a New York-based corporation that will take the jobs, expertise and profits down south.

While we weren’t calling for nationalization of any existing company and were simply responding to the Conservatives’ insistence that more competition is necessary to lower prices, this didn’t stop many right-wing voices from freaking out. One blogger called us a “socialist labor union… demanding that the state pull a Hugo Chavez” while a Windsor Star headline blared: “A truly bad cellphone idea”. The comment pages editor at the National Post ridiculed the idea in a column mostly devoted to a fantasy Crown telco dubbed “CanComm”. Jonathan Kay joked that the cost for “CanComm” would be “deducted from your wages, along with your CPP and EI contributions” and that consumers’ dial tones would consist of “folk songs corresponding to the religion and ethnic origin of subscribers, as indicated on their last completed census form.”

For her part, the Ottawa Citizen’s opinion pages editor, Kate Heartfield, wrote that the mere suggestion of a Crown wireless company (and price regulations) reflected the fact “we were speaking different languages.”

To top it off the Industry Minister chimed in. “A national crown corporation, I think, is the last thing that we need,” explained James Moore. (Worse than another war, climate-change induced flooding or an industrial disaster à la Lac-Mégantic?)

Of course none of the outraged critics looked at the substance of our proposal, they simply asserted that it was an outlandish idea. Not one of them even acknowledged the one jurisdiction in Canada where a Crown corporation already competes against private companies.

Perhaps that’s because Saskatchewan demonstrates that when telecom consumers are given a choice between a Crown corporation and private providers, they overwhelming choose the publicly owned option.

Provincially owned SaskTel is the leading communications provider in Saskatchewan. Highly rated in customer satisfaction surveys, SaskTel has 1.4 million accounts in a province of a million people. Initially focused on landlines, today more than 7 in 10 cellphone subscribers in the province use SaskTel. It seems that given a real option people prefer the Crown Telco by a large margin.

But the benefits of SaskTel do not end with consumer satisfaction. Most of its workforce enjoys the protection of a union and it has led the way on many technological advancements. For example the company was the first in North America to launch broadband over Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). SaskTel also plows a high percentage of its resources into capital expenditures, including rural areas, all the while returning a dividend to the provincial government ($84 million in 2012).

Recently, telco analyst Peter Novak called SaskTel “a successfully run government company that makes a solid return by providing decent services at good prices, with quality investment and innovation to boot.”

Setting up a Crown wireless corporation — or as a reporter from the Regina Leader Post suggested privately, commissioning SaskTel to expand across the country — may not be the only response to telco problems. But when Ottawa’s telecommunications policy is so confused that it is offering a giant multinational corporation, implicated in spying for the U.S. government, special rights to the best public airwaves that have been made available in decades, the idea of a Crown at least merits serious discussion.

There is a reason, however, for the Right to dismiss the idea out of hand. They have another agenda.

Their real aim is much more than simply wooing Verizon. They won’t stop at opening Canada's telco sector to foreign control. Next up will be broadcasting and other cultural industries. A recent Fraser Institute study makes this clear, calling for the removal of all restrictions on foreign ownership in Canadian telco and broadcasting. The right-wing think tank is at least open about its objective, unlike Harper’s Conservatives who are trying to do what Canadian don’t want by stealth.

Simply investigating the possibility of setting up a national Crown telco would go counter to today's dominant ideology, which equates human progress with privatization, deregulation and opening everything up to multinational corporations. Going against the grain gets you tagged, in the kind words of the Ottawa Citizen’s Kate Heartfield, as "union veterans, stuck in pre-NAFTA attitudes."

Simply put, we’ve gone so far down the ideological road of corporate globalization that it seems more reasonable to grant one of the world's biggest companies advantages to take over Canada’s telecommunications than to set up a national Crown wireless provider.


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