September 22, 2019 / 9:17 PM / 23 days ago

Canada's Trudeau vows to cut cellphone bills, says he is ready to force firms to act

BRAMPTON, Ontario, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised on Sunday to reduce cellphone bills by 25% if his Liberals are re-elected next month and warned major providers he could force them to take action.

Affordability is a key issue ahead of the Oct. 21 election and Trudeau said Canadians paid among the highest wireless bills in the Group of Seven industrialized nations.

“Canadians shouldn’t have to choose between having a cellphone and heating their homes,” he told a news conference in the Ontario city of Brampton, saying the average Canadian family of four would save up to C$976 ($735) annually after four years.

Opinion polls show the Liberals face a tough battle against the opposition Conservatives, especially after the emergence of images last week showing Trudeau in blackface.

The main wireless providers - BCE Inc’s Bell unit, Rogers Communications Inc and Telus Corp - account for around 90% of the market and complaints about high prices are commonplace.

The Liberals said they would work with the firms to ensure they offered plans comparable with global prices. They also promised to allow more Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) to enter the market.

MVNOs lease wireless capacity at wholesale prices and resell it at reduced retail prices.

That idea alarms the telecommunications firms, which say the MVNOs are not required to make any of the major investments needed to ensure cellphone service in what is a huge, thinly populated country.

Reuters reported in August that the Liberals would move to cut cellphone bills and make it easier for MVNOs to operate.

The big companies say some wireless rates decreased 35% from 2016 to 2018 and note they all introduced unlimited plans this year.

The Liberals said that if they did not see prices coming down in two years’ time, they would consider lowering the entry and investment threshold for MVNOs.

They also said they could strengthen the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) - which regulates the industry - to allow it to make affordable pricing for consumers a core objective.

The Liberals also want to change the way the government auctions off spectrum needed for wireless services.

Access to spectrum is awarded to the highest bidders, but a re-elected Liberal government would focus on consumer choice, affordability and broad access.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association industry group was not immediately available for comment.

$1=$1.33 Canadian Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Cooney

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