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Industry Minister meets with senior wireless execs amid policy concerns

James Moore, Minister of Industry, is pictured on July 4, 2013. Mr. Moore is meeting with senior executives of Canadian wireless companies amid concerns that Ottawa is giving preferential treatment to foreign telecoms in an upcoming wireless spectrum auction.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Industry Minister James Moore is meeting privately with senior executives of wireless companies Monday as opposition continues to build to a Canadian government strategy they argue would grant preferential treatment to big foreign firms such as Verizon Communications Inc. at the expense of domestic incumbents.

The get-togethers take place in the wake of signs that corporate Canada is increasingly united in its concern about the manner in which the Harper government is trying to entice a fourth wireless player in all of the country's regional markets.

Most, if not all, of the wireless players are being granted half an hour with Mr. Moore, who just took over the portfolio in the July 15 cabinet shuffle.

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The Big Three telecoms – BCE Inc., Rogers Communications Inc. and Telus Corp. – have mounted a public relations blitz to persuade Ottawa to close what they call loopholes in telecom policy that they argue were meant to help small new entrants, not behemoths.

Their entreaties come ahead of a January, 2014, auction of licences for valuable wireless spectrum in which new entrants will be able to purchase more spectrum than incumbents.

Mr. Moore's office would not discuss the meetings. "The minister is meeting with representatives from various sectors. These meetings are private," director of communications Jessica Fletcher said.

The get-togethers came after the Big Three tried to arrange their own meetings with the minister on the topic.

"They have given all the CEOs 30 minutes with the minister. They set it up," said an industry source who is not authorized to speak to the media.

"We were just told they had heard 'rumblings' and wanted to talk to everyone."

A group of 150 leading Canadian CEOs has just issued what amounts to a public appeal to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to alter course on a wireless competition policy.

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The Canadian Council of Chief Executives delivered a letter to the Prime Minister late last week asking him to rethink rules that president John Manley says would give Verizon, which is considering expanding into Canada, a preferential right to buy wireless spectrum.

Mr. Manley said the chief executives, who represent every industrial sector, rarely speak out on matters specific to one industry but feel in this case there are broader principles at stake.

"Your government has clearly indicated its desire for increased competition in the telecommunications sector," Mr. Manley wrote in a letter Friday to Mr. Harper. "While we as a council support that objective, we also believe that public policy should not discriminate against Canadian companies in favour of large foreign operators."

The potential arrival of Verizon has spurred the council's campaign.

Verizon is considering the purchase of Wind Mobile and Mobilicity, two urban-focused startup carriers that are for sale, but cannot be acquired by the Big Three because of rules surrounding the wireless spectrum they own.

The U.S. telecom giant is also assessing whether to participate in the upcoming auction of 700 megahertz spectrum. Under the rules for the auction, Verizon would qualify as a new entrant and could purchase two out of four blocks of so-called "prime spectrum," while the Big Three are capped at one block apiece. Since there are only four prime blocks, there is a risk that one of the major players could be shut out.

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The council is calling on Mr. Harper to rewrite the rules, allowing incumbents equal rights to bid on the new spectrum and equal opportunities to snap up small Canadian wireless companies.

"We favour open markets and competition – bring it on – but don't tie somebody's hand behind their back," Mr. Manley said in an interview.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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