FATAH: Time for Canada to end monopolies in telecom sector

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It was a Black Friday for Canadians, but not the one we are used to. Not one filled with incredible sales and deals. In fact, the Black Friday of July 8 was truly black because of the crash of Rogers Internet services countrywide.

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The sight of people lined up in long queues outside banks reminded me of the currency demonetization in India in 2016. Except in our case, phones were dead and we couldn’t access web-based messaging systems on our hitherto trusted cellphones where pedestrians talk endlessly to no one in sight.

All of a sudden, no one on the streets was chatting to themselves. As I walked towards the intersection of Parliament and Carlton Sts. in Toronto, with two banks diagonally facing each other, the sight of ordinary Canucks pushing and shoving each other to get to the cash counters was a truly odd sight.

On both corners, people tried desperately to use the ATM machines without luck. Rogers had shut down the financial systems, the ambulance services, the 911 call centre and every other public service from booking Uber to calling for a Beck Taxi.

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Our country is vast and underpopulated. From coast to coast to coast, our cities, towns and First Nations settlements are sprinkled across an enormous landmass that used to be linked by railways and roads, but today is linked by the Internet that has brought us all closer and with a better understanding of the many communities who inhabit the ‘true north strong and free.’

But all it took to set us apart was the failure of a single private corporation that has monopolized how we interact on social media and can enrich its shareholders at the expense of the ordinary Joe or Jaswinder who has little control over the company that triggered the blackout.

What if we were in the midst of a war or an insurrection and such a breakdown happened?

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While the run-of-the-mill commentator made the predictable call for more companies to compete in the Internet service provider market, others took a more sombre view of the situation considering the national security risks to the country and the interests of the common citizen of this nation.

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Vass Bednar, executive director of McMaster University’s Master of Public Policy program said, “The outage is illuminating the general lack of competition in telecommunications in Canada,” said.

Bednar has a point. Canada’s telecom sector is dominated by three large carriers — Rogers, BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. — and their hold on the industry has long been a concern of academics, who have called for regulators to increase competition for mobile and Internet services in Canada.

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Global reports that the Competition Bureau is currently fighting Rogers’ plans to purchase Shaw Communications Inc. for $26 billion despite the planned sale of its Freedom Mobile business to Quebecor Inc. because the regulator feels the deal would only bolster Rogers’ monopoly and not create a viable fourth carrier.

On the other hand, and after almost three decades of public ownership being considered blasphemy with the drumbeat that privatization is a panacea for all economic ills, a group has launched an online petition that states:

“It’s time to bust the monopoly on the telecoms sector. Canada must move to deliver public, reliable, high-speed, and affordable internet access to all.

The petition to the Minister of Industry, Francois-Philippe Champagne, has as of Wednesday morning gathered almost 13,000 signatures.

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The petition goes on to say:

“Break the duopoly by creating a new crown corporation tasked with delivering high-speed, affordable internet to all in Canada. … The breakdown of Rogers on July 8th exposed just how fragile Canada’s internet infrastructure is. Across the country commerce crashed as stores could not process credit cards, email transfers could not be delivered, even 911 service was lost in some places.”

“It’s clear that cell and internet services are essential for us to work, pay for food, and make important calls. But for years, the Big 3 telecom companies have been buying up the competition, expanding their profits while we’re stuck paying for poor services and sky-high wireless plans. And last year, the Shaw-Rogers merger gave Rogers even more control over our telecom services,” it added.

For many of us who have witnessed the rise of big capital and its grip on our lives, I concur with the petition when it says:

“It’s time to bust the monopoly on the telecoms sector. Canada must move to deliver public, reliable, high-speed, and affordable internet access to all.”

The question that remains unanswered is this: Who will listen to the small guy when even the NDP is not buying into the concept of public-owned Internet infrastructure.  Jagmeet Singh is simply asking for the end of the monopoly.


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