CBC Highlights the Terrible Conditions of the Wireless Sector in Canada

The CBC recently did an examination of the brutal conditions of the wireless sector, and it was actually a respectable effort.

For the last couple of years, I have been directing a lot of negativity towards major media outlets. These efforts were with good reason. Whether it was stumping for government legislation or publishing misinformation about link taxes rather than actually doing their jobs and publishing facts, the major media outlets have rightly took massive credibility hits that were, well, self-inflicted at the end of the day. Naturally, in the absence of major media outlets, I was more than happy to be one of the few to actually do write these stories properly and separate fact from fiction no matter where the misinformation in these debates came from.

While the behaviour of major media outlets have been infuriating for a while now, it’s not as though they do wrong all of the time. Case in point is the recent expose of Canada’s Wireless sector. The expose was a full episode of CBC’s Marketplace where a follow-up write up was published. While I didn’t quite catch the full episode, I was able to watch a good portion of it. While there is always room for criticism, what I saw and what I read was actually a very respectable effort.

For some context, if you are a reporter constantly moving from topic to topic, it’s almost impossible to really get absolutely every angle or detail in a given story. Nothing will replace specializing in a given topic and regularly reporting on updates. That’s just the nature of being a general news reporter and a specialized news reporter like us.

Between the write up and what we saw in the special, the overall impression that we were able to get is that the problems can very easily be put at the feet of the federal government. There is a lot the federal government can do – whether it is through legislation or through the regulators – to put more competition in the sector and finally get those sky-high prices down. They even made reference to the ReWheel study which we covered back in 2021. Increasing competition by having more players in the market will inherently lower prices and give consumers better quality of service as well.

All of this is right in line with what we’ve been observing for quite some time. The government can play a major role in finally fixing this long-standing problem of bad wireless service. The problem, as some of the Marketplace interviewees point out, is a complete lack of political will do actually do something about it.

More impressively is that both the special and followup did an excellent job of knocking down the long-standing talking points by the industry.

One of those talking points which never held water is this idea that Canada has a lower population density and, therefore, the prices must stay high. The talking point, of course, never held water because Canadian’s are not living evenly spaced out across the country. Anyone who has any geographical knowledge of Canada knows that large portions of the population are found in major metropolitan areas. Examples include the Vancouver Metropolitan Area and the Greater Toronto Area where the density more than justifies lower prices overall.

While neither the write up or what we saw in the special seem to really touch that angle, CBC actually tackles that talking point in a different angle by comparing Canada to countries with similar population densities. In the end, the conclusion is that other countries have much better cell phone service and prices. The only difference between these other countries is the fact that Canada doesn’t really have competition while the other mentioned countries, in fact, do. Regardless of angle, the talking point never held water and the CBC actually took that down pretty respectably here.

Another talking point by the industry seems to be that ReWheel did a terrible job and the study doesn’t actually add anything to the debate. This was actually very nicely destroyed when the CBC worked with people in other countries to compare prices and found that Canada’s prices are substantially higher than other comparable countries. So, even if the study was somehow inherently flawed, it doesn’t explain why the results were so easy to replicate. If anything, CBCs own findings actually bolstered the credibility of the study in the first place. What’s more, industry types don’t actually refute this with their own figures to bolster their point.

A third talking point that the industry tried to push is that prices in Canada are already falling. The problem with that argument, and nicely highlighted by the CBC, is the fact that though prices are falling, they are falling at a much slower rate than other comparable countries.

Now, is there ways the CBC could have done better with this? Of course. All of them seem to revolve around not pushing hard enough against the Canadian telecom monopolies that operate in Canada. While what we saw did point out how bad the situation is and put the blame where it belongs for the situation, they didn’t necessarily highlight the fact that the federal government is currently gearing up to make matters worse by potentially greenlighting the Rogers Shaw merger, thus reducing competition even further. The CRTC rubberstamped the deal while the “Competition” Tribunal is fighting to approve the deal against the Competition Bureau who is fighting to stop it. That stage of the approval is now being fought out in the Federal Court of Appeal which is set to proceed later this month.

Another angle left out is the fact that the Trudeau Liberal government isn’t the only government that is failing Canadians on this file. The Harper Conservative government tried to tackle this by doing a wireless spectrum auction. The idea, of course, was that potential competitors would snap up some of that spectrum and bring competition into the sector. The auction, as you can surmise, was an abysmal failure. The major monopolies snapped up all of the spectrum and almost nothing changed in the sector after. It was an ideological move that ended with predictable results. In fact, the CBC probably still has footage of the Minister at the time announcing the results where he repeatedly said the names Telus, Rogers, and Bell all throughout the process.

What’s more, the CBC has conducted similar exposes in the past with Canada’s Worst Cell Phone bill in 2010 and Canada’s Worst Cell Phone Bill: The Sequel in 2011. While Marketplace did say that Canadian’s have been putting up with terrible service for years, that is actually understating the extent of how bad Canadian’s have had it for so long.

More insultingly, the Federal parties, including the Liberal party, have long promised to tackle these issues. This was true in the 2019 election and the 2021 election. Each time, you could get a sense that this election is different and that this issue is finally going to get tackled. Each time, this was always followed up by sudden radio silence and the federal government proceeds to do absolutely nothing about it. So, not only is nothing being done about this problem, but politician’s have been long promising to fix the issue on top of it all even though they don’t really have any intention on following through with those promises.

For a number of these angles, the CBC appears to defend themselves by saying that the Rogers Shaw merger wasn’t actually the focus of the story. This is odd because competition in the sector is very much part of their story and very much affects this debate.

Still, while it’s hard to say that the recent expose is perfect by any means, it is safe to say that the CBC still did a respectable job. The story really put the problem at the feet of the federal government and highlighted why the industry talking points just don’t hold water. The special and the report was mostly just focused on the consumer side which is fine. Could the CBC fill in details about the competition side of things by highlighting the additional problems with the Rogers Shaw merger? Sure. Still, for what was in the reports, the CBC did a good job all around.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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