High wireless prices or high usage? Big bills!

21 Mar

On Tuesday, Telus’s director of broadband policy Craig McTaggart published a detailed 42-page rebuttal to some recent criticisms of the Canadian wireless industry, including a posting from University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist, an Open Media report and a pair of blog posts I wrote. I’ll let those parties speak on their own behalves, but the Telus report does misrepresent some of my observations, which is something I think I need to address.

In the first instance, McTaggart’s rebuttal is titled “Why do Canada’s wireless critics want to turn back time?” I’m not sure if I’m included in that question, but I certainly wouldn’t want anything of the sort to happen. There’s no question Canadian wireless customers have it better today than a few years ago; system access fees have been scrapped, all of the major carriers are offering top-notch phones, the price of data isn’t in the thousands of dollars (unless you happen to forget to turn off roaming) and most Canadians have more service providers to choose from. Those are all positive developments.

That said, the market still has many issues. One of the biggest is when the industry pretends it doesn’t, which was the conclusion of a recent report from Scotia Capital. That report, which kicked off this debate once again, urged the government and regulators to consider their previous interferences with the market to be a success because prices are good and lower than in the United States.

I found that report to be selective in the information it presented, so I put forward a larger picture with some of the best numbers available, both in terms of comparison to the United States and the rest of the world. The numbers came from a recent version of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s regular Global Wireless Matrix.

McTaggart’s main issue with my analyses is that I equated Canadian carriers’ average revenues per user with high prices. One does not necessarily translate into the other, he wrote, with high ARPU being the result of Canadians using their phones more than people in other countries. Also, with more people using smartphones, ARPU is naturally higher because of the associated data plans.

These claims are disingenuous for several reasons. For one, if we go back to the original focus of this debate - whether Scotia Capital’s comparison to the U.S. held weight - it’s clear that Canadians aren’t using their phones anywhere near as much as Americans. On the voice side, Canadians use an average of 375 minutes a month, a far cry from the 901 minutes down south.

While the Global Wireless Matrix doesn’t summarize how much data subscribers are using, there are plenty of American subscribers on unlimited data plans, which were common since the launch of the iPhone in 2007. U.S. cellphone carriers have only recently moved toward the sort of smaller data limits that have been standard in Canada over the same time frame.

Putting those two facts together, Americans use more minutes and typically get more data, yet U.S. carrier ARPU is 16 per cent lower than their Canadian counterparts. In other words, Americans get much more usage for fewer dollars.

If the second part of McTaggart’s logic on smartphone usage is to be believed, countries where data usage makes up a large percentage of revenue should have high ARPU. That’s obviously not the case. Japan’s percentage is a whopping 62.3 per cent, yet its ARPU is lower than Canada’s. Same goes for the 41 per cent in the U.S., which topped Canada’s 38.8 per cent as of the third quarter of 2012. And again, revenue per user is significantly lower down south. (McTaggart also suggests I failed to mention that Canada’s data usage percentage was growing quickly, but that’s incorrect - I clearly stated that Scotia Capital was correct in that regard.)

Furthermore, an Ofcom report from December showed that Canadians are indeed big users of mobile data, ranking third highest in its comparison of major countries, but not as big as Brits or Japanese, who ranked first and second respectively. We already know Japan’s ARPU is lower than Canada’s while the U.K., at $29.11, is less than half of Canada’s. The U.S., by the way, doesn’t come in far behind Canada, at sixth place.

So countries that have higher or similar data usage are posting lower ARPU. That makes it hard to believe that high ARPU is the product of voluntary usage by subscribers - it is far more likely the product of prices set by service providers. If we’re to be charitable and grant that ARPU isn’t exactly the same as high prices, it is very correlated to them. To suggest that high prices and/or price increases do not contribute to high ARPU is disingenuous and runs counter to findings from numerous consultants (here, here and here) and telecom companies themselves. Ironic example: Telus chief financial officer recently attributed ARPU growth in TV thanks partly to “price increases we implemented in July.”

This argument is largely moot anyway because it’s not really high prices that are at the centre of the debate - it’s high bills that are. While industry proponents can split hairs over how much ARPU reflects prices, the indisputable fact is that world-leading ARPU means Canadian wireless subscribers are getting the highest bills in the world. And despite industry talking points, that’s not because of any conscious choice on their part.

There’s a lot more to respond to in McTaggart’s piece. I’ll get to some more of it next week.

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Posted by on March 21, 2013 in mobile, telus


2 Responses to High wireless prices or high usage? Big bills!

  1. David Ellis

    March 21, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    Nice work, Pete. For those of us who focus more on wireline broadband, this is a timely and depressing reminder of how Canadians are getting screwed over the airwaves as well. And that when a mouthpiece for the big carriers tries to tell us how good we’ve got it, pull out the bullshit detector.

  2. techMology

    March 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Point #10 kills me the most.

    TELUS (and the others) claiming they are spectrally efficient is laughable.

    Ask any of the big three how much of their PCS spectrum they’re using, let alone the AWS spectrum they most recently acquired. The only band where utilization approaches 100% is the cellular band (800MHz or “850″ as it’s now known).

    It’s only in urban areas where they are using maybe 1/3rd of what they’ve acquired (in PCS and AWS bands; they don’t have cellular outside of AB/BC and parts of QC). In rural areas, they aren’t using any of it at all, they are relying on their roaming partners.

    And roughly the same number of subscribers? Rogers has ~1.7 million more than TELUS. They are only “roughly” the same as Bell, whom with they share their HSPA and LTE networks with, which, incidentally, allows TELUS to not utilize their spectrum where their partner is deployed.

    “We have no choice but to use what spectrum we have as efficiently as possible to serve our customers”.

    Just call it what it is… a land grab. They’re all hoarding spectrum; and by buying more of what they don’t need, they’re actively trying to keep new competitors out.


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