Blogs & Comment

Canada Post and CBC should form Canada's fourth wireless carrier: Peter Nowak

The case for Poutine Mobile

(Nathan Denette/CP)

I have to admit to being as shocked as anyone with Wednesday’s announcement that Canada Post will be discontinuing door-to-door delivery starting in the second half of next year. The postal service will instead require people to pick up their mail from community mailboxes, with nation-wide conversion to be completed by 2019.

At first, it seemed like a step backwards in time, reminiscent of the shared party phone lines of the 1950s. But on second take, it makes sense and might even be a good thing. The majority of physical mail that most people get these days is probably annoying junk flyers, so this could actually help with that. People also generally expect important stuff, meaning it comes by courier or isn’t too much of a hassle to pick up. As CB‘s Kate Wilkinson points out, the coming costs savings could make the postal service more efficient, allowing it to focus on other potential money-making ventures.

It seems like a few stars are indeed converging. If a newly modernized Canada Post is going to be looking at new ways to make money, why not start with that old adage, where if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em? If it’s really the Internet that is killing the postal service, why doesn’t the postal office get into providing Internet service?

Sounds wacky, right? Except that a number of countries, with the most notable being the United Kingdom, are already doing this. The U.K. Post Office offers both basic broadband and home phone service at rock-bottom rates. Other countries long ago realized that the point of postal services is to provide communications, not a particular medium, so really any method for doing so is game. It’s not even that much of a stretch for Canada Post, which already resells long-distance phone cards through its own private label service.

A while back, I suggested that one of the Canadian government’s possible courses of action in what is increasingly looking like a failure to establish more wireless competition would be the creation of a Crown corporation. Such an entity would be owned by the government and therefore the citizens of Canada, with the intention of providing competitively priced wireless services while at the same time generating a decent return on investment.

With foreign cellphone companies and investors giving Canada a wide berth, it may be the only way to get a well-funded competitor in to compete against the likes of Bell, Rogers and Telus. The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union sure liked the idea.

Yet there doesn’t appear to be a need to create an entirely new Crown corporation when Canada Post employees could be re-purposed into sales clerks and customer support. Its networks of outlets could sell service from the biggest cities to the smallest of towns.

Such an operation would need infrastructure, to be sure, but that need not be difficult or expensive to establish. The government could gift Canada Post with necessary spectrum, either from available lots or by recalling unused airwaves from existing carriers – as it looks to be in the process of doing. The post office would also benefit from a few simple rules guaranteeing its customers roaming on existing networks, which is also something that regulators already seem to be doing.

Would all of this be enough to improve services and bring down prices? In a highly converged country such as Canada, where the big players own not just the pipes but much of the stuff that comes over it too, maybe not. As has become clear from the flop of the new wireless entrants, Canadians aren’t just interested in low prices – they also want other stuff tied into them. That’s where another beleaguered Crown corporation could come in: the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

With a giant chunk of its revenue about to disappear thanks to Rogers taking over NHL broadcasting rights, the CBC is – like Canada Post – left to wonder about the future. Part of its role could be providing digital content, whether it’s radio, online or television, to its Internet-access-supplying service partner. Such bundled services may not be as attractive as, say, a Bell cellphone with CTV and TSN included, but it could be better than the nothing that solo independent providers are offering now. Perhaps even a TV service could somehow be tacked on? In any case, it would all be incredibly Canadian.

I initially joked that if the government took over struggling independent wireless provider Wind and made it a Crown corporation, the company could be renamed Chinook Mobile to make it sound more Canadian. A joint venture from Canada Post and the CBC would need a suitably patriotic name. My personal favourite is Poutine Mobile.

In all seriousness, Canada Post and the CBC have a shared role and heritage in that both have traditionally existed as the glue that held the country together, both in terms of communications and culture, with the latter applying more to the broadcaster. Modern communications media has largely displaced or made obsolete their former services, but their common mission remains. Moving into providing connections and culture through modern communications isn’t just a crazy idea, it may actually be a very necessary one for both Crown corporations.