Head of Canada's telecom regulator eyes more wireless competition

TORONTO (Reuters) - The departing head of Canada’s telecom and broadcast regulator said his as-yet unnamed replacement may have to intervene in wireless markets to stoke competition and criticized the federal government for poor governance of the arms-length watchdog.

Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais is seen on the screen of a live video streaming device during a news conference in Gatineau, Quebec March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada’s wireless market is dominated by three major players - Rogers Communications Inc, Telus Corp, and BCE Inc’s Bell Mobility - with a high cost of entry making it difficult for smaller players to compete.

“Until the current reality changes — if indeed it ever does — Canada will always have a problem of high retail wireless prices,” Jean-Pierre Blais, Chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said in remarks prepared for delivery at a event in Banff, Alberta on Tuesday.

In the wide-ranging speech, days before his five-year term as chair of the CRTC ends, Blais said one option to help push prices down would be to force the big players to provide wholesale access to their wireless networks for “virtual” operators.

That suggestion fits with the government’s request from last week for the CRTC to reconsider a recent decision it says excludes Wi-Fi-based providers from broadening their access via the infrastructure of other companies.

Blais said the CRTC could also consider regulating retail wireless prices or investigate the impact that network-sharing agreements have on competition.

BCE and Telus share the cost of building out their wireless network but compete at a retail level for customers.

BCE did not immediately respond to a request for comment and Telus was not immediately able to comment. Rogers directed queries to an industry group, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which said the measures Blais suggested “would have a chilling effect on continued investment and growth”.

Blais had sought to put consumers at the center of his agenda, and during his tenure the CRTC told TV providers they must offer a basic package of programming for no more than C$25 per month, enacted a wireless code of conduct, and declared broadband internet access a basic service.

In the speech he criticized the federal government’s failure to fill empty commissioner roles and appoint a new vice-chair of broadcasting at the CRTC, calling it “just bad governance”.

The government has yet to name a replacement for Blais, whose terms ends on Saturday. He did not apply for an extension.

Reporting by Alastair Sharp; editing by Diane Craft