Bell Canada says conflicts with some real estate developers have left it unable to serve customers in a significant portion of new condos in the crucial Toronto market.
Over the past year-and-a-half, the BCE Inc.-owned company has filed five complaints with Canada's telecom regulator over problems related to accessing new developments.
Bell says data it tracks suggest that from 2010 to the end of this year, the top seven builders in the Greater Toronto Area will have constructed about 400 new buildings with 85,000 units. But it estimates it cannot serve customers in 20 per cent, or 17,000, of those new condos.
"When we're faced with condo developers unwilling to give us access for whatever reason – often it's because of sweet deals our competitors have tried to lock them up with – we have no choice but to ask the commission to step in and intervene so we can provide choice to consumers," said Mirko Bibic, chief legal and regulatory officer for BCE.
Bell filed two new applications with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission earlier in November.
The company has been making an aggressive move into the television market in Ontario and Quebec since the launch of its IPTV (Internet protocol television) product Fibe TV in 2010 and has been trying to win market share from one of its biggest rivals, Rogers Communications Inc.
Before it launched Fibe TV, the only television service BCE could offer was through satellite, which was not popular in downtown condominium buildings due to line-of-sight obstructions as well as aesthetics, with some building rules even barring the installation of dishes.
At the end of its third quarter Bell had 642,000 Fibe TV customers, but still lags Rogers's 2,044,000 cable television subscribers. While Rogers and Bell's own satellite TV division have slowly been losing customers, however, Bell's Fibe TV grew 53 per cent over the past year. Last year its satellite subscribership declined by 6.2 per cent to 1,710,286.
Mr. Bibic said the condo market in Toronto, where Rogers has long had a cable subscriber foothold, presents a significant opportunity for that expansion.
"It's an important market … [Toronto is] where the major condos are in our operating territories."
Rogers declined to comment for this story.
In February, the CRTC ruled that as of March 31, Rogers would not be permitted to provide telecom services at the 21-storey York Harbour Club development in downtown Toronto unless Bell was also given access.
The commission noted that a 2003 decision setting out a framework of access to multiple-dwelling-unit buildings stipulates that to give customers choice, all telecom operators wishing to provide service should be given access. It encouraged the developer, Plaza Corp., to come to an agreement with Bell.
Bell did gain access but is now asking the commission to review what it calls "improper and unreasonable" costs Plaza Corp. has charged for access to the York Harbour Club.
The company also complained this month that Edenshaw Developments Ltd. terminated negotiations over access to its development Chaz Yorkville after the developer reached agreements with Rogers and an unnamed telecom company to provide services.
Bell says it had been in talks with the Edenshaw for two years before the company ended those discussions, noting that it had agreements with two other telecom providers and was therefore providing its residents with sufficient choice.
In a letter filed with the commission on Nov. 14, Edenshaw indicated that telecom services can be a selling point for developers in the highly competitive condo market.
It said it is still actively marketing the building to the public and between 10 and 50 per cent of the units remain unsold. Since Edenshaw wants to use the identity of the unnamed service provider in its marketing materials, it said it would lose its competitive advantage if it had to disclose the name earlier than planned.
Edenshaw and Plaza Corp. declined to comment for this story, but both developers must file formal responses to Bell's applications by Dec. 4.
Mr. Bibic said he believes the CRTC will side with "condo dweller consumers" who want choice. "Unless there's a technical limitation, landlords have to give access to buildings," he said.
(BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)