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Make our airwaves work for Canadians

There is more than meets the eye in the debate over our cell phone bills. Canadians deserve more than rhetoric about competition vs. foreign takeovers.

We need access to spectrum in virtually all aspects of our daily lives. We talk to each other, get informed, learn, and work. In other words, using the spectrum is a central part of our social, economic and political life. Yes, we need affordable wireless and mobile service. But we also need to know that our system is able to respond to the needs of the future – needs we cannot even imagine today given how fast things change in how we communicate with each other.

The Canadian government is getting ready to auction off a valuable band of airwaves – known as spectrum – to the highest bidders. The three major mobile service companies based in Canada – Bell, Telus, Rogers – want to protect their turf against new competition. The government, sensitive to complaints from Canadians about high cell and internet bills, says the answer is more private competition. The government has announced rules for the spectrum auction to prevent the Big Three from gobbling up the entire spectrum on the block, setting aside some for bids only from new companies or those with a small foothold in the industry – including Wind and Mobilicity.  Meanwhile, US-based Verizon was reportedly sniffing around Wind and Moblicity to establish a presence in Canada. While the Big Three control roughly 85% of the current usable spectrum, they complain that a major foreign player could come into Canada on favourable terms as a new entrant under the government’s rules. Others argue the Big Three are simply pushing to get rid of rules favourable to any new entrants at all.

Competition is not enough to make sure the system meets our needs now and over the next generation.

Organizations such as municipalities, band councils, schools, and community organizations should have access to a part of this valuable spectrum to experiment and even offer affordable services, especially in rural or low-income areas that the private market does not serve well.

Public and community service has always been an essential part of our communication system in our large and sparsely populated country. There is absolutely no good reason to think this is no longer necessary, especially as communications is an ever more important part of our lives.

So here is what we urge the government to do:

–  Reserve some spectrum in the 700 MHz band (the one to be auctioned) for public, community and educational use. The Canadian Media Guild previously recommended that two blocks of 5 MHz be reserved for this use.

–  Set cost-based rates and enforce rules for tower-sharing, roaming and access to existing digital infrastructure for smaller, independent Canadian service providers – including companies and non-profits, so that they can be viable alternatives to the big companies. The Big Three should be not able to act as gatekeepers and block or restrict cost-based access to the digital roads that service providers require to reach Canadians.

The Canadian Media Guild is 6,000 journalists, hosts, producers, technicians, videographers, editors, librarians, programmers, sales reps, administrative staff and freelancers. We believe a quality media system that serves all Canadians is built on healthy organizations that treat workers fairly.

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