*Update: I wrote this two weeks ago. This morning the Liberals gave the big 3 wireless providers two years to cut prices by 25%. If they don’t comply the government will look into further increasing competition (hint: foreign companies).
During the last electoral campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a promise to reduce cell phone bills by 25%. According to the Liberals this would save a family of four about $1000 per year on average. Part of the plan is to bring more competition to the table via mobile virtual network operators (MVNO). With the CRTC hearings underway, Canada’s Big Three, Bell, Telus, and Rogers are showing resistance. Telus said they would cut 5K jobs and $1 billion in spending if CRTC approves MVNO. The head of Rogers says it may have to cut back $3 billion on planned investment in technology networks, including 5G, this year if it doesn’t like the government’s new rules.
It’s safe to say that most mobile consumer wouldn’t mind the government shaking down big telecoms to lower bills but there’s a probably a long term cost, where Canada falls behind in innovation and technology. Telecoms provides critical infrastructure to the economy. It should be in the nation’s interest to have the best network. A lack of investment in the space could outweigh lower cell phone bills over time. The main question is how do we get lower bills and higher investments to fuel innovation?
Part of the answer is grant 5G spectrum for free or at a low cost in exchange for lower bills. Spectrum is the airwaves used to carry mobile phone and other electromagnetic signals. Spectrum is essential for companies to be able to grow, to provide data to consumers, to connect consumers. It’s what makes a smartphone smart. So this is a very valuable resource and how we deploy that resource will enable the ability for companies to invest and grow going forward.
The Canadian government is expected to auction wireless spectrum in 2020 and 2021, which could be a significant expense for wireless network operators. 5G is the next generation of wireless that is supposed to be better and faster. 5G will be fundamental in ushering our economy into the next generation (autonomous cars, smart cities, smart factories, IoT etc…) 5G will have a major impact on the next stage in the development of the digital economy.
For government, the spectrum auction is an opportunity to raise a lot of money. But do how to strike a balance between raising billions from a sector already straining to reduce costs while stimulating investment in the rapid deployment of 5G services. If the spectrum is too expensive, it becomes a way of taxing the industry instead of helping new technologies. It’s possible that high spectrum costs have a knock-on effect for consumer prices, which would reverse what the Liberals want to achieve.
This idea is not new. China has granted spectrum licenses to the country’s telecoms networks in rather than selling them off. It’s part of China’s attempts to win the 5G race and to have a national rollout of 5G. This is an opportunity for Canada to become a leader instead of playing catch up.
There’s a win for everyone. The Liberals fulfills an electoral promise. The consumer gets a lower bill. And the telecoms invest in infrastructure and innovation to provide access to the next wave of technology.
I understand it’s attractive for the government to auction off licences for potentially billions on an industry largely built on thin air. Instead of chasing quick money, I recommend playing the long game. We should approach this space with a large ambitious vision. Let’s think big here. Let’s be the model that other countries want to emulate.
Thank you for reading,