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Canadian regulator starts hearings on boosting cellphone competition

TORONTO, Feb 18 (Reuters) - Canada’s telecommunications regulator began hearings on Tuesday on maintaining smaller companies’ access to wireless networks owned by the country’s top three companies, in a bid to lower the cost of cellphone plans and increase competition.

The hearings, held by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission over nine days in Gatineau, Quebec, aim to examine competition in the industry, as well as whether the market is ready for 5G and if it adequately serves Canadians.

As part of its review, the CRTC said it heard from 28,000 Canadians and surveyed over 1,200 directly, the “vast majority” of whom felt that Canadian cellphone prices were not as competitive as in other countries, CRTC Chairman and CEO Ian Scott said in his opening remarks.

Canada’s telecoms industry is dominated by three companies - BCE Inc’s Bell unit, Telus Corp and Rogers Communications - which together control 89.2% of the mobile subscriber market, according to the most recent government data from 2018.

Bell, Telus and Rogers were required to provide wholesale roaming services to competitors at rates set by the CRTC for a minimum of five years starting in 2015.

The Mobile Virtual Network Operators arrangement, or MVNO, allows smaller companies to provide phone plans at lower rates than if they had to build their own network infrastructure.

Scott said the commission’s preliminary position was that this regime should remain in place, subject to certain constraints.

“Our goal is to ensure that Canadians have access to a world-class communications system,” he said.

Bell, Telus and Rogers were not immediately available to comment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party promised to lower phone plan costs by 25% in the 2019 federal election campaign. (Reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Dan Grebler)