In telecom lobbying, don’t hate the player – hate the game

08 Aug

The big telecom news over the weekend was that Stockwell Day, a former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper, has been named to the Telus board of directors. The move followed a similar one by Telus’s rival BCE, which recently appointed Jim Prentice, a former industry minister under Harper, to its board.

Not surprisingly, critics of the telecom industry and the government roundly condemned the move. Open Media said that “Big Telecom is cozying up to the government” because the companies are facing stronger-then-ever resistance from the public. Judging by the messages I got on Twitter, it’s clear that many people are disturbed if not sickened by the fact that formerly high-level politicians are now helping to run big telecom companies. Their fear, which is probably well-founded, is that Prentice and Day will use connections with their old government buddies to swing decisions and laws their way.

That’s nothing new. There are plenty of examples of this sort of revolving door between the industry and government. In recent years, Ontario PC party leader and Toronto mayoral candidate John Tory spent time in and out of Rogers while former Conservative New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord became the wireless industry’s head lobbyist.

Conventional wisdom has it that Telus and Bell are arming up for the next wireless spectrum auction, which will hopefully happen next year. Given how badly they were spanked in the last one, where it was ironically Prentice who set the rules that gave newcomers big advantages and thereby leading to the launches of Wind, Mobilicity, Videotron and Public Mobile, they probably don’t want a repeat. Getting government types on board, they hope, will net them better terms for the upcoming auction.

And what a lobby-fest that last auction was. Not only did Wind lobby like crazy to get the right to start up – of all the telecom companies, only Bell met with government officials and bureaucrats more frequently in 2009 – there is also the high probability that the new carriers wouldn’t exist were it not for their political glad-handing. Liberal opposition critic Scott Brison at the time pointed his finger at the Harper government’s ties to Quebecor, owner of Videotron, and more specifically at Luc Lavoie, chief spokesperson for both the company and former prime minister Brian Mulroney. Would the government have cut new entrants a big break if it weren’t for lobbying from Quebecor and/or Lavoie? It’s one of those things that makes you go, “hmmm?”

I had a front-row seat to the whole thing as a reporter and what I found most ironic was that everything that Brison said in opposition to the spectrum auction sounded like it was coming directly from Bell, Rogers and Telus. Like a Russian babushka doll, it was lobbying inside of lobbying inside of lobbying.

The lesson here is that it’s silly to decry the Prentice and Day appointments because it’s not their fault, or the companies’ fault, it’s the system’s. Lobbying is so pervasive and deeply integrated into it that it’s hard to imagine where one would start in trying to clean it all up. It’s questionable whether anyone should even try because in some ways, it wouldn’t be fair. Politicians can’t be expected to never again hold jobs after they leave office, can they?

The rules preventing influence-peddling could be tweaked a hundred different ways, but none of it would likely make a difference. After all, politicians are like cockroaches – they’ll always find a way to insinuate themselves into places you don’t want them. Why else does anyone get into politics, if not to line their pockets in the grandest way possible?

Wind seemed to learn quickly that the best way to deal with this situation is to simply fight fire with fire. If you’re going to play the game, you have to hire the right players. That means Wind, Mobilicity or even Open Media better start thinking about driving a truck full of cash up to Tony Clement’s door, because if they don’t, somebody else will.


Posted by on August 8, 2011 in bell, telecommunications


13 responses to “In telecom lobbying, don’t hate the player – hate the game

  1. Nick

    August 8, 2011 at 1:01 am

    I’m an electrical engineer with Telus and I disagree with your notion that Scott Brison’s criticism of the Conservative decision to approve foreign-backed WIND mobile came directly from the the Big 3. Scott Brison was merely making an important point-why the discrepancy of regulatory treatment between WIND and TELUS, Rogers, Bell. As you know, no more than 20% of the voting shares of a Canadian telecom may be owned by foreigners. The issue is-why did Clement approve WIND mobile while not at the same lifting these regulations? Surely, if we follow the Conservative philosophy, you allow the free-market to create competitive environment. You do not give one telecom the benefit of foreign-ownership and other not. Such a situation is not a level playing field. All that the Big 3 is asking is create a level playing field. If you lift foreign ownership for one telecom, lift it all for every telecom.

    And as opposed to thinking of Telus as an evil conglomerate digging into your pockets, we should recognize the economic benefits the company brings. It employs 29, 000 professionals (business analysts, computer engineers, system engineers, network engineers, human resources) across Canada, including me, and those people buys things and pay taxes. I work in Telus House Vancouver, but just recently we opened a new tower in Toronto, further showing our committment to attracting the best talent.

    If you really want to get to know the internal culture at Telus, our four values are:

    We have the courage to innovate
    We believe in spirited teamwork
    We embrace change and initiate oppurtunity
    We have a passion for growth

    So, while you may think of Telus as an evil corporation, dig beneath the surface and you will realize the little beneficial nuances.

    • Tom

      August 8, 2011 at 9:43 am

      Gee “Nick” – for an electrical engineer, you sure seem to know a lot about Telus’s structure and culture. You wouldn’t happen to be an undercover PR flak, would you? And why do you capitalize TELUS? It’s not an acronym.

    • petenowak2000

      August 8, 2011 at 10:10 am

      Hi Nick – I’m not sure where you get the impression that I think Telus is an “evil” corporation because I surely don’t. You’re right; the company does employ many people and does do many good things. However, like all corporations, it is legally required to maximize returns for its shareholders, which is how the “game” I wrote about above has come to be. Do I wish that the game wasn’t necessary, or that it could be played with somewhat better rules? Sure, but that doesn’t equate with me thinking that anyone is evil.

      As for Brison’s comments, the $200 million windfall he kept referring to at the press conference where the spectrum auction rules were announced was plucked directly from Telus. I’ve added a link above to Telus’s submission to the consultation, with the exact figure on page 46.

      On the foreign ownership rules, I couldn’t agree with you more. Incidentally, everything you said on this topic was also in Telus’s comments on the spectrum auction.

  2. snowbound

    August 8, 2011 at 1:24 am

    Why is it the Telus support via phone is handled off shore rather than in house with talented Canadians? Seems the bottom line is what is governing Telus’s operation rather than the customer.

    • Nick

      August 8, 2011 at 4:28 pm

      In business, it’s important to find efficiencies and if you can save money to divert it to more important initiatives such as retaining the best university talent then you should. When Telus was the telephone monopoly in BC and Alberta, and before Shaw started stealing home phone customers, Telus could afford to hire, probably in retrospect, a gluttony of call centre workers. But as the competitive pressures from Shaw began to hurt, we had to become a leaner organization so we outsourced call centre work. If you job requires no university education and can be executed elsewhere, then it will.

      So, the outsourcing was done for two things:

      1. Compensate for the home phone losses from Shaw
      2. Use the money saved to hire more university-educated people to optimize and improve business processes

      • Mike

        August 8, 2011 at 4:57 pm

        Well, Telus is striking back with Optik TV-Shaw recently cut 500 jobs. Unfortunately competition comes with job cuts.

  3. Xtelus

    August 8, 2011 at 1:29 am

    Im so glad I’ve left telus never to return. IMO telus is a giant con job.I don’t think Nick has been with telus too long.

    If I get telemarketed 1 more time I’m going to go nuts!! How many times do I have to say NO??

  4. Marc Venot

    August 8, 2011 at 3:35 am

    Those people are able including to listen so is it so bad that they are now a kind of baron?

  5. Parallax Abstraction

    August 8, 2011 at 11:22 am

    snowbound :
    Why is it the Telus support via phone is handled off shore rather than in house with talented Canadians? Seems the bottom line is what is governing Telus’s operation rather than the customer.

    This. It’s easy to talk about all the Canadians Telus employs except that like Bell, they outsource almost all their support to lowest bidding Indian call centers where people are clearly not adequately trained and proficiency with the English language appears to be optional. I work in IT for a company that uses Telus for our BlackBerry fleet and the number of times I’ve simply had to hang up and call back because I either couldn’t understand the rep or they couldn’t understand me is insane.

  6. Dave

    August 8, 2011 at 11:25 am

    As an electrical engineer with over 20 years experience I find Nick’s comment “cute”. I remember those heady days as a new grad. And one thing I have learned over the years is that company moto’s are generally propaganda best left to toilet paper. My advice to Nick is to wake up and realize that “profit maximization” is the sole reason a company exists and nothing will get in their way to realize that revenue. Even if it includes screwing the staff of electrical engineers. So please, spare me the “beneficial nuances”, I have heard it all before and seen it be a lie too many times.

    • Marty

      August 8, 2011 at 4:33 pm

      Hey Dave,

      I don’t disagree that Telus is in business to make money and unless your work for the government the company you work for is also in business to make money for its owners or shareholders. Let not forget that if Telus didn’t exist then there would be one less telecom to choose from for your serrvices, 7 million less Canadians carrying cellphones, 3 million less Canadian homes with landline telephones and 29,000 more Canadians out of work. Some of those Telus employees might even be customers of your business and helping to pay your salary.

  7. Brian

    August 8, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Yes NIck to believe a company that much is when you become a fool. They are there for their own selfishness and like their commercials about how they care about the customer while they stab them in the back is another of the many lies. Telus screws their wholesalers into providing non-competitive packages and making them have to charge the $10GB here overage, which has been well proven to be a complete lie. I’ve always know about it and in irc commented on it many times over the yrs. So thats why I left the competition because Telus never enforced it. Well I went to Shaw first and they did too after 16mo. Even though Telus never did its the shear principal that their competition(which is really non-competitive) weren’t able to compete to keep my self and others. So the team work is a nice idea but its usually the same bs a con man does by making things look better than they really are.

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