Canada to rule on whether big telcos must extend wireless access for minnows

OTTAWA, April 15 (Reuters) - Canada’s telecommunications regulator will rule on Thursday on whether reluctant big wireless providers must do more to increase competition in a market that has some of the world’s highest billing rates.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government is at odds with the telecom operators and ordered them in March last year to bring down cellphone bills by 25% or face consequences.

The ruling Liberals want the major firms to offer wholesale wireless access to so-called Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO), smaller outfits that resell the capacity at reduced retail prices and pass on the savings to consumers.

The big three companies - BCE Inc, Telus Corp , and Rogers Communications Inc - oppose the idea on the grounds that the MVNOs do not help build the expensive infrastructure needed to ensure service. The three firms together control 89.2% of telecoms subscribers and 90.7% of the revenue, data from the regulators show.

Telecoms companies argue that Ottawa is working with outdated information and insist their prices are competitive.

The regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), has scheduled the announcement for 4 pm Eastern Time (2000 GMT).

Lawrence Surtees, lead communications analyst for IDC Canada, said MVNOs may not be a “magic bullet” for Canada’s expensive telecoms market.

Starting a new telecoms company in Canada is tough, given the dominant grip of the Big Three, Surtees said, adding the MVNOs would not necessarily change this.

“I just think, from a policy and regulatory standpoint, they (policymakers) need to move on and maybe be much more creative,” he said in a phone interview.

During the 2019 general election, the Liberals vowed to cut cellphone costs and expand coverage, saying Canadians have some of the highest wireless bills in the world.

The CRTC’s ruling is not final, since it can be overruled by the government and also challenged in court. (Reporting by Moira Warburton in Vancouver and David Ljunggren in Ottawa Editing by Sam Holmes)