Unlimited Data In Canada? Good Luck With That One

04/07/2017 03:37 EDT | Updated 04/07/2017 03:38 EDT
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Toronto City Council is asking federal regulators to force Canada's Big Three wireless carriers to offer unlimited data, according to a report from MobileSyrup.

Uh, good luck with that.

Councillors last week voted 27 in favour, four opposed and six absent in favour of making a motion to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. They pointed to the unlimited data plans now proliferating in the United States and expressed exasperation that such offers aren't available here.

"There is no legitimate reason for consumers in Canada not to have the option of reasonably priced unlimited data plans for their mobile devices," said a background document released by the council.

While Toronto's elected officials can be admired for their pluck, their knowledge of how things work in telecom is another matter. Put simply, their motion is dumb in so many ways. The popular meme about walking into Mordor comes to mind:

unlimited data

What councillors are asking for is price regulation of the wireless market, which is pretty much the nuclear option. And just like dropping an A-bomb, it's not going to happen until every other measure is tried first.

A likelier first step might be a new wholesale regime, which a number of consumer advocate groups are pushing for. Such a system would allow independent third-party companies to deliver their own wireless services via networks owned by Bell, Rogers and Telus.

It's similar to how home internet works. Indie service providers such as Teksavvy and Distributel rent portions of phone and cable providers' networks to serve their own customers.

There's some tangible benefit to it - home internet prices are arguably lower thanks to the additional competition than they would be otherwise.

Unfortunately on the wireless side, the CRTC has rejected the idea of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) several times in the past few years. The regulator has instead espoused the "fourth carrier" approach favoured by the previous Conservative government.

It's possible MVNOs could be put onto the table once again some time soon, given the clear breakdown of the fourth-carrier strategy - Bell has taken out Manitoba's MTS and Shaw doesn't appear interested in actually competing via Freedom Mobile. But it's also possible that the status quo will continue indefinitely.

The odds of the CRTC wading into regulating retail wireless prices without first trying to engineer a wholesale market are approximately zero. If, by some chance, the regulator did change its stance and implement MVNOs, it would have to give that system a decent chance to work before trying anything else. Say, 10 years or so?

Finally, if all else failed, would we really want the CRTC setting wireless prices? They tried that with cable TV and skinny basic service last year and it turned into an abject disaster. Talk about your nuclear options.

Unlimited data at a reasonable price is a nice pie-in-the-sky wish, but with the status quo being what it is, it's not going to happen until the Big Three have a business case for offering it. Sadly, it's hard to imagine that case presenting itself anytime soon.

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