Canada's telecommunications regulator is weighing whether to take a more interventionist role in the $17-billion cellular sector by developing a national code for wireless services.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced Wednesday that it will hold a consultation to probe the state of wireless competition.
Its overarching goal is to determine whether this country's mobile market has changed enough for it to resume active regulation of the terms and conditions for wireless service contracts – a practice that it largely abandoned almost 20 years ago. A decision is expected later this year.
"Our practice has been to rely on market forces as long as we are convinced that the interests of consumers will be looked after," said acting chairman Leonard Katz in a release.
"In this case, we are seeking evidence that our intervention is necessary before considering the development of a national wireless code."
The CRTC had originally decided against regulating the wireless sector in 1994, opting instead to allow market forces to steer the industry's growth. At the time, it stressed there was sufficient competition in the market to justify that hands-off approach.
Those dormant regulatory powers, though, still remain in the Telecommunications Act, meaning the CRTC can still exercise its authority over such matters if it chooses.
Its decision to hold a consultation comes after at least two major wireless carriers, in addition to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, urged it reconsider its stance and implement a national consumer protection code.
In February, Telus Corp. asked the CRTC to hold a public consultation and determine what national standards should apply to wireless contracts to improve transparency.
That was followed by a similar request by Rogers Communications Inc. last month. As part of its application, Rogers took the extra step of providing a draft consumer code that it hopes will serve as a starting point for discussion.
Although those companies purport to champion the interests of consumers in their applications to the regulator, their main concern is the growing patchwork of provincial regulations for wireless services.
Provincial governments are increasingly trying to fill the regulatory vacuum left by the CRTC by toughening up consumer protection legislation amid a growing public outcry over irritants such as opaque contract language and cancellation fees.
Quebec's Bill 60, which took effect in 2010, caps the fees that consumers must pay for early cancellation of their wireless contracts.
Manitoba, meanwhile, is on the brink of proclaiming legislation into law that bans unreasonable cancellation fees among other measures. In Ontario, a private member's bill, that also proposes to put a ceiling on cancellation fees and make cellphone contracts more understandable, passed second reading in December.
Carriers, though, are worried that the jumble – different rules in different provinces – will drive up their compliance and operating costs. As a result, the industry is advocating a more uniform approach.