Tremblay points to wireless future for broadband access

TORONTO — An increasing number of Internet subscribers will be using wireless technologies for high-speed access, and this will probably be the only option for more than a million Canadians, according to a former head of a cellular carrier.

Andre Tremblay, a member of the federal Telecom Policy Review Panel who was chief executive officer of Microcell Telecommunications Inc. (better known by its Fido brand) before it was acquired by Rogers Wireless, said 90 per cent of Canadians currently have broadband access. At a conference held this week – dubbed “Work Live Play” – Tremblay said the telecom industry could provide broadband access to an additional five per cent of Canadians, while the remainder would need assistance from the government to connect to the Web at high speeds.

“We’re dealing with a million and a half Canadians here, and it seems to us in these remote communities, the solution will be wireless in most cases,” he said during a breakfast keynote session to an audience of 50 at the Hilton Toronto Airport.

He added many companies are also competing with digital subscriber line (DSL) and cable operators in major cities. He cited as an example Kirkland, Wash.-based Clearwire Corp., which offers broadband Internet access in 29 U.S. cities using WiMAX technology in the licenced 2.5 GHz band.

Tremblay made his remarks during a question and answer period after he summarized the Telecom Policy Review Panel’s report. He said the panel – which delivered its report in March – recommended several changes to government policy on wireless carriers, including a prohibition on carriers entering into contracts with property owners giving them exclusive access to rooftops for their cellular base stations.

In addition, he said, the panel said Canada should move to “market-based” regulations on the rights to buy or sell wireless spectrum. “The new policy framework should rely substantially more on market forces,” he said.

The panel was not asked to recommend changes to Canada’s foreign ownership restrictions – which prohibit non-Canadians from owning more than 47 per cent of voting shares (directly or indirectly) of telecom carriers. However, in an afterword, the panel recommended the foreign ownership restriction should have a “public interest test,” where restrictions are gradually lifted.

“Let’s deal with it in a phased approach where we can monitor our progress, instead of betting on one side or the other,” he said. “Let’s deal with each issue on its own merit.”

He noted telecom, banking and transportation are among the few industries in Canada with foreign ownership restrictions.

“The question in front of us was, if you open up foreign ownership, is it going to be to the net benefit of Canada?”

He suggested concerns about job losses and research and development opportunities leaving the country may be unfounded if foreign firms are allowed to buy a majority stake in Canadian carriers.

“It’s been proven in the manufacturing sector that after a long period of time, allowing access to foreign capital was creating headquarter jobs,” he said. “Companies with big operations in Canada need headquarters in Canada.” Live Work Play, organized by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, wrapped up Wednesday.

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