Want more wireless competition? Do away with foreign ownership limits: Fraser Institute

OTTAWA – If the federal government really wants healthy competition in the wireless market, a new report says it should just do away with the limits on foreign ownership and other regulations.

The analysis published Monday by the right-of-centre Fraser Institute is the latest input into the heated debate on the upcoming auction of valuable wireless spectrum.

The big three Canadian providers — Bell, Telus and Rogers — are furious that current rules might allow an American giant like Verizon to bid at the auction.

As the system works now, the government limits how much of the spectrum the big “incumbent” companies can buy up, in order to encourage smaller players to come to the table. That theoretically would stimulate competition across Canada and ultimately keep prices down.

But those smaller players — Wind Mobile or Mobilicity for example — could be bought up by a firm like Verizon, which would theoretically have an easy time snapping up the spectrum that is off limits to the incumbents. Because those big Canadian firms aren’t allowed to bid on all the spectrum available, that could drive down the size of auction bids and give Verizon a potentially good deal.

The report, written by senior Fraser Institute fellow Steven Globerman, argues there is no evidence that handicapping the incumbent companies does anything to improve efficient competition.

“Given conclusive evidence that the wireless sector in Canada is workably competitive, there would be clearly no conceptual case for competitive handicapping,” writes Globerman.

He says that getting rid of the remaining barriers to foreign entrants in the Canadian marketplace would create fears of hostile takeovers of the big three companies, thus creating an incentive for them to be more efficient.

But since many telecom firms are in the broadcasting business, the report says that would mean also getting rid of the limits in that industry — a foray into the cultural realm that no Canadian government has wanted to make.

Globerman says the government already has good levers at its disposal for making sure the industry is competitive — namely the Competition Act. In the absence of handicaps in the auction, the Competition Tribunal would evaluate major acquisitions and mergers, and hear complaints about anti-competitive behaviour.

“The elimination of all foreign ownership restrictions … and reliance upon the Competition Act to deter acquisitions of spectrum that threaten to reduce competition, as well as to discourage any abuses of market dominance that raise rivals’ costs or otherwise suppress competition, seem quite adequate competitive safeguards,” he writes.

Industry Minister James Moore has already signalled he will not be changing either the date or the rules around the auction, scheduled for January 2014.

The big three telecom companies have been taking out full-page ads and have launched a campaign called “Fair for Canada,” arguing Verizon would be getting preferential treatment under the current auction rules.

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