Bell's service upgrades in Manitoba get pushback

Bell Canada's plan to improve cellphone service along Highway 75 in the coming years — and Premier Brian Pallister's support for those changes is not sitting well with critics.

On Friday, Premier Brian Pallister said there may be province dollars to help telecommunications companies

On Friday, Pallister said there may be cash from the province to help telecommunications companies spread service to areas with no access. (CBC)

Bell Canada's plan to improve cellphone service along Highway 75 in the coming years — and Premier Brian Pallister's support for those changes is not sitting well with critics.

The telecommunications company plans to improve wireless coverage along the Highway 75 corridor, from St. Agathe south to the U.S. border, as part of its acquisition of Manitoba Telecom Services announced earlier this month.

The construction of three wireless cell sites linked by broadband fibre cable will create jobs, close gaps along the highway and bring "world class wireless coverage" to the area, said Wade Oosterman group president of BCE Inc and Bell Canada.

On Friday, Pallister said there may be cash from the province to help telecommunications companies spread service to areas with no access.

But Todd MacKay of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says it's not the right time to invest in the initiative, particularly because of the province's deficit.

"Manitoba has no extra money," MacKay said.

"We are running a billion dollar deficit. Frankly, anyone who steps into the premier's office and asks for money should get the same response — I'm sorry, we have a billion dollar deficit. We can't do that right now."

Innovation and technical improvements are better choices, MacKay says, than putting government funds toward the plan.

"Particularly technologies, such as cell coverage," he said.

"The solutions are really going to come through innovation and better technologies. And if there is any sure way to kill good ideas, it's by adding government to it."

University of Winnipeg economist Stefan Dodds is also questioning why Pallister may be open to putting taxypayer's money on the table for the plan. 

"You need a really good argument to engage in any kind of corporate subsidy," he said.

"The fact that it's Bell -- a major corporation -- just makes it, I think, doubly concerning in terms of a public subsidy."

Dodds said governments must have strong arguments for subsidizing the private sector.

"It's doubly awkward then that you could imagine the government saying, 'Oh, given that we were just elected we now want to provide any kind of subsidy to BCE, which is actually on its own a very profitable corporation."

'Bad news for consumers'

In Question Period Friday, the opposition said the Manitoba government should oppose the sale of MTS to Bell. 

NDP MLA Jim Maloway said it will be bad news for consumers.

"In jurisdictions with less competition — such as Toronto — cell phone rates are almost double the cost as in Manitoba," Maloway said. 

"Is the real reason this government won't oppose the sale because of the close ties between the PCs and the board of MTS? The fact that key Tory insiders made millions from the privatization of MTS and stand to make millions more from the sale to Bell?"

The Filmon government privatized MTS in the 1990s, a move that has dogged the Tories in every election since. 

with files from the Canadian Press

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