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The competition question

The Canadian wireless industry has decided to embrace number portability. Will it boost competition? Only if service providers get creative.

May 1, 2005  

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After years of arguing vehemently against it, Canada’s wireless companies an-nounced in April that they have agreed to implement number portability for mobile services.

Number portability removes an artificial deterrent to market-based competition: Therefore, this announcement is very good news for business users of mobile communications services.

The carriers involved, as well as the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), the industry group that stickhandled the agreement, deserve a round of enthusiastic applause from us all.

Given recent events, this was not an unexpected move. As I wrote in my last column, wireless number portability made it into this year’s federal budget, with the Martin government ordering the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to move “expeditiously” (their word) to implement it.

The industry, recognizing that change was inevitable, decided to try to grab the issue back from the federal regulator so it could at least manage the process instead of having a solution imposed on it.

And the government appears happy to give carriers a crack at it. Industry Minister David Emerson responded quickly to the CWTA’s announcement, praising the companies for their voluntary action (and reminding them to not dawdle).

Timing a question

Despite the government’s desire for quick action on this, the timing is still in question. The CWTA’s announcement did not include a deadline to introduce the service.

Instead, the association reported that the industry is working on a plan for how best to launch it, a plan that is scheduled to be finalized by September 1st.

That’s a few months out, but the CWTA notes that implementing number portability involves much more than snapping one’s fingers and shouting “Ta-Da!”

The industry says a plan is critical to ensuring that Canadians “are not burdened with the significant implementation challenges that were faced by customers in other countries”.

Fortunately, Bell and Telus already have lots of experience with portability on the wireline side, and Rogers can leverage the expertise it picked up with Microcell, which ported numbers as one of its obligations as a Competitive Local Exchange Carrier. So, it shouldn’t take long.

As implementation date approaches, the question everyone will be trying to answer is: How’s this going to change the Canadian wireless landscape? The outcome depends largely on how wholeheartedly wireless service providers embrace this new environment.

If, post-implementation, it’s business as usual, then don’t expect to see great shifts in the wireless landscape, especially not among corporate users.

Number portability in this case will become the trump card for companies to play when they’re so frustrated by their current wireless provider that no amount of customer service groveling is going to satisfy them.

But there won’t be a lot of this. Business users shopping for a better deal, or those merely curious about their options, will likely find that all the companies offer a reasonable product but that overall, service offerings, devices, features and prices are pretty similar from one provider to the next.

A second opinion

The alternate scenario would see Canadian wireless companies try to capitalize on the removal of this barrier, and entice big corporate accounts to switch service providers.

That’s going to require more creativity than simply free device upgrades and slightly lower prices, which can only drop so far before the account becomes unprofitable.

So watch for Bell, TELUS, Rogers and the other companies listed in the CWTA’s news release on this issue to come up with new ways to integrate wireless with the other services in their portfolios and expect to see some new Mobile Virtual Network Operators join the likes of Virgin Mobile in taking a kick at the Canadian wireless bucket.

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