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Wireless Predictions: 2007

The annual game show in which contestants pontificate about what the future might hold, is back. Hilarity often ensues.


November 1, 2006  


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Grab your drink and that big bowl of popcorn, and have a seat for the show is about to start. What are we watching? Why, it is Wireless Predictions of course!

On this annual game show, contestants (consultants and analysts, mostly, because they are the only ones brave/stupid/desperate enough to play) take their best guesses at what is going to happen in the year ahead, and then readers get to see what does or does not transpire. Hilarity often ensues.

First off, you will notice we are watching this show on a 40-inch plasma TV, and not on a two-inch flat panel mobile phone. TV to the phone? People need better things to do with their time, especially if that is a corporate phone.

Managing mobile devices and services will continue to be a big issue for many large companies in the year ahead, and I would love readers who manage large numbers of devices to e-mail me about their experiences: No names will be used to protect the guilty.

10-digit scramble corner

The big news, of course, will be the effect or lack of wireless number portability (WNP), which is slated to arrive in Canada in March.

WNP, for those who have just joined us, allows a subscriber to move from one mobile telecom service provider to another, without having to get a new phone number.

Yes, go ahead: lean back in your chair, let your eyes slip out of focus as you stare at the ceiling, and just enjoy that moment. I’ll wait. You’re not alone.

Based on anecdotal evidence from several highly unreliable sources, I predict a veritable scramble corner effect as many of Canada’s 17 million or so wireless phone users go shopping for a better deal.

Or even just a different one, because I doubt many “better deals” will be found. Let’s face it: we have just three national network operators in the wireless market, and none of them wanted WNP. It was not until the federal government made noises via a throne speech about imposing it on the industry that wireless operators jumped on the issue, telling Ottawa, “Hey, great idea but no need to get involved, we’re working on it.”

Meantime, I expect every operator has been offering incentives to customers who lock in with long-term contracts.

So, on the issue of WNP, I predict the following:

First, there may be token efforts to lure customers from each other, but mostly to show regulators that WNP works.

By and large, prices and services will remain much as they were pre-WNP. Second, there will be a flurry of activity as subscribers who are fed up with their service provider, but cannot imagine life without their existing mobile number, go somewhere — anywhere — else, but when the dust settles each operator will have roughly the same market share it did pre-portability.

Some might call these predictions cynical, but I believe they point to a larger issue in the wireless industry: namely, a lack of effective choice among service providers.

Some mobile virtual network operators have set up shop — Virgin Mobile uses Bell’s network, and more recently Vidotron launched wireless services on Rogers infrastructure — but those looking for a fourth network operator have so far been disappointed.

This could change if the Minister of Industry, Maxime Bernier, liberalizes the restrictions on foreign ownership of Canadian telecommunications carriers.

This was one of the recommendations made by Canada’s Telecom Policy Review panel in its final report, presented to Bernier in March, 2006 (and available online at www.telecomreview.ca).

There have been hints that Bernier will act on this. During a speech at the Canadian Telecom Summit in June, he took action on another recommendation from the panel, announcing a proposed policy directive to the CRTC to rely on market forces to the greatest possible extent.

While Bernier’s speech did not address foreign ownership directly, he promised delegates he would make “every change necessary” to ensure the continued dynamism of the Canadian telecommunications industry, which clearly leaves the door open.

For the first phase, the panel recommended replacing the current, inflexible ownership restrictions with a “public interest” test to review new foreign investments in specific telecom markets. I predict the minister will move forward on this in the coming year.

Of course, I could be wrong.

Trevor Marshall is a Toronto-based reporter, writer and observer of the Canadian wireless industry. He can be reached (on his mobile) at 416-878-7730 or trevor@words-tm.com.