08/21/2013 04:48 EDT | Updated 11/13/2013 08:25 EST

Canada Wireless Survey: 8 In 10 Oppose Government's Rules In Telecom-Sponsored Survey


You’re on Big Telecom’s side in the wireless war. You probably just didn’t know it.

That’s the message coming from Canada’s Big Three wireless companies after a new survey carried out for two of them — Bell Canada and Telus — found eight in ten Canadians oppose giving foreign companies any advantages in an upcoming wireless spectrum auction.

The poll carried out by Nanos Research also showed that 50 per cent of Canadians were somewhat or strongly opposed to foreign-owned wireless companies setting up shop in Canada, with 46 per cent in support.

That would suggest a majority of Canadians are opposed to the Harper government’s strategy for increasing competition in the wireless industry. The strategy includes telecom rules designed to help new wireless entrants by allowing them to bid for more wireless spectrum than the established players — rules opposed by the Big Three, now that it looks like the U.S. wireless giant Verizon may take advantage of them.

But the survey itself looks like a case of a “leading question” resulting in the poll showing the results its sponsors would like it to show. And respondents likely didn't know that they were indirectly voicing support for giving the Big Three telecoms the ability — according to some — to shut out other potential players in the wireless market.

In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Telus Chief Commercial Officer Joe Natale said Bell and Telus, who commissioned the poll, "helped craft the questions" asked in the poll and guided Nanos in determining how to poll Canadians on the subject. But he said the questions themselves, as they were phrased, came from Nanos.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister James Moore have been locked in a war of words with the big three in recent weeks over the possibility of Verizon coming to Canada, with the government backing rules currently in place that would give Verizon the ability to bid on more spectrum than the established Canadian players.

But the rules weren’t set up to give an advantage to a foreign player; they’re about the government’s official policy of introducing a fourth major wireless carrier to Canada, with the aim of reducing prices for consumers.

If a new entrant to the market other than Verizon — Canadian or not — were to bid on the spectrum, it would enjoy those advantages just as Verizon would. So would the three existing small Canadian players — Mobilicity, Public Mobile and Wind.

"The rules were never, ever devised for foreign entrants" like Verizon, Natale said, noting that when the Big Three telecoms originally supported the Tories' rules, it hadn't occurred to people that a "large behemoth player" like Verizon would ever take advantage of them.

He urged the government to "change the rules to make it all the same for all of us."

But according to Canada's small wireless companies, making it "all the same" would actually give a major advantage to the Big Three telcos. The small players wouldn't have the financial strength to compete against the Big Three in the spectrum auction, and would end up being pushed out of the spectrum — and therefore out of business — by the big players.

Telus' Natale said he doesn't believe that's true, noting that many parts of Canada already have four major wireless players.

But the survey doesn’t ask Canadians whether they want more wireless competition, or whether they support giving advantages to new players; it asks only whether respondents think foreign companies should have an advantage. Here’s the question as it appeared in the survey:

As you may have heard, the Government of Canada will soon be auctioning access to a new type of airwaves for use by wireless companies. Under the current rules, it would be possible for a large foreign company to bid and win access to twice the amount of airwaves as most Canadian companies. Which would you think is in the best interest of consumers…?

Naturally, a vast majority of Canadians would say the foreign company shouldn't have an advantage. But ask Canadians whether they want the rules changed so that the Big Three can effectively shut out all others from the wireless auction (as the small wireless companies argue), and you’ll likely get a very different answer.

There’s nothing wrong with asking the above question, and Nanos’ results are probably accurate, given that polling company’s long track record of accuracy. But this classic case of a “leading question” relies on the fact most consumers haven't been briefed on the technical details of the spectrum auction.

Other surveys over the years have shown different attitudes among Canadians than the Nanos survey. A poll carried out for Wind Mobile in 2011 showed 77 per cent of Canadians viewing increased wireless competition favourably.

And in a survey of its readers last year, the Globe and Mail found that encouraging more competition in the marketplace was the number-one priority among respondents.

Here’s a clip from the classic ‘80s British show Yes Minister, in which Sir Humphrey Appleby explains how you can use leading questions to change the results of an opinion poll (in this case, a poll on "national service," or the military draft.)

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