Opinion » Cybernaut

Wind and hot air



Back in 2008, when Canadians paid the highest cell phone rates and charges of any nation in the OECD, the federal government opened up a block of the wireless spectrum to encourage more competition in the mobile market. Almost overnight three new companies emerged; European-owned Wind Mobile (which is building a tower in Whistler) and Canadian-owned Public Mobile and Mobilicity. And while Canadians still pay more overall than a handful of developed nations the good news is that costs have come down around 10 per cent.

Now all three of these companies are for sale and could very well be snapped up by the Big Three — Rogers, Bell and Telus. That's something that would be good for company founders, investors and shareholders, but will ultimately leave Canadians with less choice. Rates will probably creep up again, because, let's face it, there's nothing stopping it — it's been demonstrated that telecoms charge what they charge simply because they can.

The good news is that later this year the federal government is opening up the spectrum again and hosting another sale, with the stated goal of having at least four companies competing in every region of the country. The problem is that there's nothing much to prevent any emerging companies that buy up those signals — including the longer-range 700-megahertz spectrum — from later selling their companies, customers and infrastructure to other telecoms.

In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the top people at Wind, Public Mobile and Mobilicity started new companies with the expressed goal of cashing in again down the road. After all, Wind alone is valued between $500 million and $1 billion after only four years in operation. Who wouldn't dive back in with that kind of cash up for grabs?

The feds have taken a few weak steps to ensure that the spectrum sale results in real and permanent competition this time, like relaxing the requirements over Canadian ownership — something that would allow a real player from the U.S. like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, etc. to get in on the action. I'm not sure how I feel about that; I like the idea of building Canadian businesses but there's no denying that choosing an established player in the industry would ensure that the buyer will stick around.

The reality is that we've gone too far down the private road to have any kind of publicly owned internet or wireless network (though that would be nice), and any attempt to compete or over regulate the industry will most definitely wind up in court. But there are other options.

One idea I have would encourage non-profits to buy up that part of the spectrum, pooling resources to start non-profit companies where a portion of fees go towards their causes. For example, Canada's children's hospitals, or various charities raising money for medical research, the environment or social justice could band together to start a mobile business. The CBC could dive in and use the money to keep public programming alive. Universities could buy up the spectrum and use the money to keep tuition low and fund research and development projects. In this model, picking a cell phone provider could be your good deed for the year, a new way to support the causes you believe in.

As for the current state of wireless competition in Canada, I recommend a trip to Michael Geist's blog, www.michaelgeist.ca and reading an article titled "Debating the State of Canadian Wireless Competition: The Present Isn't So Friendly."

Amanda Todd, Rehteah Parsons...

A Nova Scotia teen named Rehteah Parsons has become the latest sad chapter in the global cyber-bullying epidemic after classmates published photos of her rape and taunted her in person and over the web. She was 15 when she became intoxicated and was taken advantage of, and, after a year-and-a-half of hell, changing schools and seeing a councillor, she took her own life last week.

The case is very similar to Coquitlam's Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old who garnered international headlines after she ended her life last November. She had been pressured by webcam creepers into exposing herself, then had those pictures made public when she refused to show more. She was cyber bullied by her peers relentlessly as the photos followed her from school to school, and even to a new city.

Two girls, one on each coast. Both told their parents and the authorities what had happened, both changed schools and both sought help, but there was nowhere to hide.

The simple answer is that we need to educate kids about the issues, but kids, and teens especially, live in short time horizons and don't look very far into the future. They don't always appreciate the consequences of what they do, or realize how decisions they make can haunt them.

But there are things that parents should do. One is to monitor their teens' online interactions. Another is to keep computers out of bedrooms. Yet another is to both monitor and limit their gadget time — get them pay-as-you-go phones with very limited data plans, for example. Most importantly, parents need to talk to their kids, and tell them about these two girls.


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