NDP's telecom hearings proposal nixed

A House of Commons committee has voted down a proposal by the Opposition NDP to hold hearings on rules governing the wireless industry in the midst of a fevered public debate about Canadian telecommunications.

Industry committee's rejection of hearings comes amid news of U.S.'s tightening grip on telecoms industry over security concerns

A cellphone shopper weighs her options. The U.S. is tighting oversight of its telecom industry, while Canada is engaged in a fierce debate over how to foster wireless competition. (Reuters)

A House of Commons committee has voted down a proposal by the Opposition NDP to hold hearings on rules governing the wireless industry in the midst of a fevered public debate about Canadian telecommunications.

The NDP had called on the standing committee on industry, science and technology to hold hearings on the January 2014 auction of radio-wave spectrum after Canada's big three telecom companies complained that Ottawa's rules for the auction favour U.S. telecoms giant Verizon. 

Verizon is rumoured to be considering entering the Canadian market by either buying up smaller players like Wind or Mobilicity or bidding on spectrum itself.

Bell, Telus and Rogers have asked the government to loosen the auction rules to allow them to bid on blocks of spectrum reserved for new entrants and smaller players like Wind and Mobilicity and to give them an equal shot at purchasing smaller competitors.

NDP industry critic Chris Charlton said consumers are concerned about pricing, access and security of cellular phone services, and she urged the government to have an "open debate" about the issue.

As the large wireless providers lobby for what they call a more level playing field in the upcoming spectrum auction by taking out media ads and launching a public relations campaign dubbed Fair for Canada, Industry Minister James Moore is clarifying the government's position on telecoms in a series of speeches across Canada.

But although Moore defended the government's policy as one that will promote greater competition, the Conservative-dominated industry committee, recalled at NDP insistence, turned down the NDP's request for new hearings on the subject.

U.S. tightening telecoms rules

The decision comes amid news that the U.S. is tightening its grip on its own telecoms industry because of security concerns.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday on the increasingly restrictive security agreements that have been established over the past decade between U.S. telecom companies and national-security agencies geared at protecting strategically significant networks.

The paper revealed that foreign companies that have bought into U.S. telecom firms have had to enter into agreements that compel them to grant government security agencies access to information on their networks.

In recent years, the reach of the agreements has been widening, in part because of company mergers, and they now affect three of the four largest U.S. wireless providers, the paper reported.

Verizon signed such an agreement in 2000, when it sold a stake to Vodafone PLC, the WSJ reported. Other U.S. wireless companies that have been affected by such arrangements are Sprint Corp, partly owned by Japan’s SoftBank Corp., and T-Mobile USA, which merged with MetroPCS.

The deals routinely require the companies to give the National Security Agency streamlined access to their networks. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed the extent to which security agencies listen in on U.S. telecommunications feeds earlier this year.

The security agreements have also begun to be applied to companies that supply equipment to the U.S. telecom network, with the government actively discouraging purchases of equipment made in China because of alleged security concerns.

There is growing concern in the U.S. over telecoms equipment made in China, which officials fear could be used by Chinese spies to pry into U.S. affairs. The head of the powerful U.S. Intelligence Committee last year urged Canadian companies not to do business with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei as a matter of national security. 

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, which represents Canadian workers in the industry, has expressed concern over national security if Verizon enters the Canadian market.