Rogers says it wants to invest $500 million in its wireless network over the next 3 to 5 years in the province, but says not having fair passive infrastructure access is a barrier to that investment and, ultimately, competition

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Digestible version (full story below):

  • Rogers sent a letter to B.C. government officials in late October imploring them to give the company the same treatment on passive infrastructure — such as transmission towers — it provides Telus
  • A historic agreement ensures Telus has joint ownership of towers in use by BC Hydro, providing an advantage, Rogers says, when it comes to attaching and relocating telecom equipment
  • The province only allows a small sliver of the joint-owned towers to attach telecom equipment, which is in Telus’ domain; it also has a policy that limits the number of poles along BC highways
  • A month before the letter was sent, Rogers and Shaw filed a complaint to the CRTC asking for compensation for any B.C.-initiated relocation of their transmission facilities, excoriating the alleged anti-competitive nature of the joint ownership because Telus is compensated under the agreement
  • It represents another instance of a telephone company facing the ire of a cable company as, earlier this year, Quebecor filed a complaint against Bell about access to its structures in Quebec
  • The issue of access to passive infrastructure has been ramping up as the era of 5G, which requires many more attachments on support structures, rapidly approaches

Key quote:

“We note that, as the historical phone company, Telus benefits from a century old access to provincially controlled passive infrastructure. Telecommunications is today a robustly competitive business. We are not asking that Telus’ prior arrangements be disrupted. We are just seeking a level playing field.” 

Rogers’ letter, addressed to three different B.C. deputy ministers

What this story contributes:

This story reveals the formal letter sent to three different B.C. deputy ministers asking them to deal with the issue by providing fair access to joint-owned passive infrastructure.

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Deep version:

As the telecom regulator decides what to do with a complaint from Rogers and Shaw asking for compensation to move its equipment in British Columbia, Rogers is pushing a parallel message to three different B.C. deputy ministers: provide us with fair access to passive infrastructure like you do with Telus or investments in the province will be stunted.

Rogers said it has already invested $1.4 billion in its wireless network in the province and is pledging an additional $500 million over the next three to five years, it said in an October 30 letter to the deputy ministers of energy, economic development and infrastructure. Rogers has already launched its initial 5G network — which requires attaching cellular base stations on poles — at the beginning of this year and last week launched a standalone 5G network that won’t rely on a 4G backbone.

That future spending pledge, however, may be contingent on how the government handles access to passive infrastructure.

According to the letter, obtained by this publication through a freedom of information request, Rogers wants “fair” and easy access to structures like telephone poles and radio and transmission towers that telecoms hang their equipment on, including fibreoptic cables and wireless antennas. Telecoms either bury cables underground where feasible or hang them on those support structures — sometimes at a hefty price.

The problem, Rogers says, is that Telus is allegedly afforded an unfair advantage because of a decades-old commercial agreement that solidified a joint investment by Telus and BC Hydro in a network of poles. The agreement stipulates that the telecom portion of the poles, which also have an electrical component for BC Hydro, will be owned and managed by and given priority access to Telus.

The complaint claims that telecoms wanting access are essentially at the whim of the telco because Telus owns that two-foot space on which all telecom equipment must hang. And Rogers claims that Telus can deny access if it requires that space in the present or in the future — say, for 5G. Otherwise, it charges a rental fee.

Courtesy of B.C. Hydro

“We note that, as the historical phone company, Telus benefits from a century old access to provincially controlled passive infrastructure,” Rogers said in the letter. “Telecommunications is today a robustly competitive business. We are not asking that Telus’ prior arrangements be disrupted. We are just seeking a level playing field.”

Telus did not respond to a request for comment.

“The current cost and time of utilizing government-controlled infrastructure is a significant barrier to our ability to deploy capital in BC,” Rogers said in the letter. “High fees and, as importantly, unpredictable and lengthy permitting processes require us to tie up significant capital for an uncertain period.

“A fairer, smoother, and more predictable permitting process will allow us to put that money to work and trigger the associated economic benefit much faster.”

Most of Rogers’ and Shaw’s transmission lines are supported by the joint-owned poles under the ownership of Telus, BC Hydro or FortisBC, a large privately-owned electricity and gas company.

Making the B.C. issue more difficult for those not named Telus is that the province has a “single pole line policy,” which limits the number of poles along BC highways. That means that Rogers and Shaw cannot simply erect new poles.

When asked how the B.C. government responded to Rogers’ letter, the ministry of citizens’ services said that it values and depends on Rogers’ contribution to connectivity in the province and that it regularly hears from providers big and small about the challenges they face.

“The Province recognizes the importance of passive infrastructure to network expansion,” the ministry told this publication in an email. “Access to support structures, such as poles, is a key component in the deployment of broadband and mobile networks across the province.

“It’s important to note that successful and speedy implementation of broadband projects requires close collaboration with all levels of government, partners and communities to gain access to both passive infrastructure, such as poles, and necessary permits.”

The issue has partly made its way to the CRTC. In September, Rogers and Shaw filed a complaint asking the regulator to compensate it for moving its equipment to make way for work ordered by the ministry of transport and infrastructure on BC highways. The cable companies have argued that the ministry has not wanted to negotiate compensation.

What’s irking the cablecos is that Telus, which either owns or co-owns the poles along the highways, will be compensated under its historic agreement with the province.

“If Rogers and Shaw are forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for highway relocations, these expenditures take away from our overall build plans in the Province,” read the complaint.

The urgency on the part of the country’s largest cable company is palpable. The telecom has already spoken directly to B.C. Hydro, according to the lobby registrar. But it’s anyone’s guess what they talked about.

BC Hydro did not respond to requests for comment.

The CRTC is currently studying how to make access to telecom-owned infrastructure more efficient, as the issue has been rung up as one of the biggest barriers to rural broadband connectivity. In light of the consultation, and following a complaint by Quebecor about access to telco Bell’s infrastructure, Canada’s largest telephone company has said it offered to put in motion ways to streamline access to its towers.

Read the full letter:

TRA-2020-06764

“Receipts” is a series of stories based on financials, documents from sources or public records requests

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