Wireless Competition Review - Only in Canada

The Globe & Mail ran a piece today about this topic, where the current telecom policy review includes looking at the idea of having a fourth major operator for wireless. Only in Canada, again.

It's been widely documented - here as well - how Canada lags other advanced countries in wireless adoption. All 3 major wireless carriers recently had their Q4 2005 earnings reviews, and the strongest common theme was how there's plenty of upside for wireless growth in Canada, and they expect wireless will continue to be their driver of growth and profits.

True, we basically have an oligopoly for wireless, and it could be argued that more competition will put downward pressure on pricing, and accelerate mass adoption. However, all 3 are essentially national carriers, so consumers do not lack for choice. It's not like cable or telecom where there's basically one choice in each market. You can't get Rogers Cable in Alberta, and you can't get Telus phone service in Quebec. But you can get either of their wireless services in either province - plus Bell, of course.

The reality is that Canada is a small, widely-dispersed market. California has more population than all of Canada - how many wireless carriers do they have? And it wasn't that long ago that we had a fourth operator - Microcell. They weren't really a national provider, but certainly served as a de facto fourth major player to keep everyone else honest. Well, they actually did what I was suggesting earlier - offer lower prices.

It was a desperation move to add subscribers and shake up the market, but all it really did was get the others carriers angry with pricing that cut into their margins. This, of course, is exactly what the regulators are getting at - too much market power in too few hands is a bad thing. Microcell was acquired by Rogers, which took us down to three operators, but they weren't taken out because of their pricing strategy. It was more about consolidating the market for economies of scale, and allowing Rogers to become the #1 wireless operator.

Prior to adopting aggressive pricing, Microcell was in rough shape, and its prospects were not great. Simply put, even though a subscriber base of 1 million made them big enough to be #4, the business was just not viable at that level. I'm not alone in believing that Canada simply isn't large enough to support 4 national wireless operators. Somehow we manage to support 2 national dailies, but 4 wireless carriers is just too much.

My take is that it's really tough to leglislate competition. The investment required to build another network is prohibitive, and that's not going to happen. MVNOs - mainly Virgin Canada - are trying to build up the market, but it's been slow going so far, especially without wireless LNP. There's certainly room for MVNOs to grow, and maybe we need more entries who aren't Canadian that can stimulate the market with more colorful and creative strategies.

There are some regional wireless carriers like SaskTel Mobility, but I don't really seem them doing much to push the market. Allstream/MTS is a potential wildcard here, as they have aspiration to be a national wireline carrier, and could have put themselves on that path by acquiring Microcell (much the way Telus did by acquiring Clearnet to get into the wireless business). And finally, there are the MSOs chasing the Rogers model - Shaw, Videotron and Cogeco. They all have large regional bases of cable subscribers, and could beef up their bundles with wireless.

Many possibilities here, but it's hard to see any of them doing what the CRTC would like to see. And I really don't see any other scenarios, short of dropping foreign ownership restrictions, and letting foreign operators come in and do their thing.

That's probably not what any Canadian wants to see, especially with the Olympics just closing. A big deal was made over how the Hudsons Bay Company won the contract away from Roots to be the official outfitter of our Olympic team. Of all the homegrown businesses remaining, none is more quintessentially Canadian than HBC. We've lost pretty much all our other retailers of note due to American competition, and sadly, they have just gone down the same road. They may never have been that profitable, but HBC sure was a point of pride for Canada in the face of Walmart, Sears, etc. Well, US financier Jerry Zucker just acquired them - over the course of the Olympics - so outfitting our national team is now a bittersweet reminder of just how fragile Canada is in the shadow of the US. That's a long way of saying foreign ownership restrictions for telcos are not likely to be lifted for some time, so I don't see that happening either.