Independent telecom asks CRTC to outlaw bulk deals between carriers and condo developers

Independent telecom asks CRTC to outlaw bulk deals between carriers and condo developers

Beanfield Metroconnect, an independent telecom provider, is asking the industry regulator to outlaw arrangements between carriers and developers that provide turnkey internet service for all units of a particular condo building.

The Toronto-based company took specific aim at Rogers for its use of “bulk agreements” in an application filed to the CRTC last September. It argued that the deal would eliminate a consumer’s ability to choose their provider and that it gives Rogers “an undue advantage” that limits competition.

It wants the commission to declare that Rogers’s bulk agreements violate the Telecommunications Act and require it to terminate such deals.

Todd Hofley, Beanfield’s vice-president of policy and communications, said bulk agreements create “monopolistic islands” where rival providers can’t compete for residents’ service as easily.

The agreements typically cover the first five to eight years after the condo is built and see residents pay for internet through their rent or condo fees.

“We are happy to compete against the incumbents whenever that playing field is even and is level,” Hofley said.

While Beanfield’s application focuses on Rogers’s bulk deals, Hofley said it’s a practice that has become increasingly common over the past five years by various major carriers, making it harder for companies like Beanfield to sign up customers in new residential buildings.

He said a CRTC ruling in his company’s favour could set a precedent that prevents all carriers from inking bulk agreements with developers.

Over half of Toronto developments in bulk deals

Beanfield estimates that close to half of all new condo or apartment developments in the Toronto area have bulk deals in place.

The CN Tower and Toronto skyline are hazy in the background. In the foreground construction workers stand on the upper levels of an uncompleted building.
A condo under construction is shown in Toronto’s Wallace-Emerson neighbourhood, with the CN Tower visible in the background, on June 28, 2023. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

That’s based on a survey of 110 projects the company reached out to for potential access since January 2022. Of those, 54 projects already had bulk deals spanning almost 40,000 units, it told the CRTC.

Hofley said bulk agreements also pose a safety issue when there’s an outage.

“If you have a building that is bulked by Rogers and everybody’s internet is on Rogers, the building’s elevator phones are on Rogers, the building’s concierge and security system is on Rogers, and that system goes down, you’re blind. There’s nowhere for you to turn,” he said.

“I think we all learned during the Rogers outage of July 2022 how important resiliency in our telecommunications infrastructure is.”

Beanfield plans to raise the issue when its representatives appear this week at a CRTC hearing into wholesale high-speed access service.

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Rogers spokesman Cam Gordon pointed CBC News to the company’s official response to Beanfield’s submission, which was filed with the CRTC last October.

Rogers argued its bulk billing arrangements “do not eliminate end-user choice … and do not constitute an undue preference.”

“In fact, these arrangements, which have consistently been endorsed by the commission in the past, enable (multi-dwelling unit) residents to benefit from discounted broadband prices and innovative in-building communications amenities,” wrote Rogers vice-president of regulatory Pamela Dinsmore.

The response also noted that Beanfield once signed a similar agreement, referring to a bulk deal contract that was made with Toronto Waterfront in 2011. Beanfield acknowledged the deal in its submission to the CRTC, writing that the bulk arrangement was requested due to the “complexity” and scope of the project.

Other telecom companies, including Bell Canada, Telus Corp. and Eastlink, also opposed Beanfield’s application in interventions filed to the CRTC.

Like moving into a furnished apartment, says prof

Dinsmore wrote that bulk deals do not prevent rival carriers from selling their services directly to individual residents, even if they live in a building where an agreement with a particular provider has been signed.

“They can — as Rogers does in these circumstances — seek access to build out fibre to individual units in response to customer service requests or wire the entire building at any time,” she stated.

Hofley said Rogers’s argument amounts to encouraging residents to pay twice for overlapping services, “which is a fascinating idea of how competition is supposed to work.”

“The problem is that they can’t pay twice. Because if the market is gone, nobody else is going to build into that building,” he said.

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Gregory Taylor, an associate professor with University of Calgary’s communications, media and film department, said it can be “very difficult to dislodge” an incumbent carrier where a bulk deal exists.

“There is really no way from a financial standpoint for a competitor to come in and offer service,” he said.

“The incumbent company will already have everyone locked up as a customer, so getting people to change is difficult. It involves an investment from the new companies coming in.”

But he said that for some residents, the convenience factor may be worth the lack of choice. He likened the situation to moving into an apartment that’s already furnished.

“Anyone in Canada who has dealt with the hassle of trying to find quality internet service will tell you that, often, it can be a pain,” said Taylor, adding that buildings with bulk deals generally have high-quality fibre set up.

“In this case, you move into a building and it’s there and it’s ready for you.”

A spokesperson for the CRTC said it is reviewing Beanfield’s application and other companies’ rebuttals but could not yet address the arguments.

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