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Canada's Ma Bell holds on to its monopoly

In the Great White North, Ma Bell still rules supreme. Bell Canada, roughly the equivalent of what AT&T used to be, has been allowed to keep its monopoly on long-distance service in Canada, or at least the parts of Canada it serves.

The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission has ruled against competition, saying it ``would not be in the public interest'' to approve an application from CNCP Telecommunications to provide cheaper long-distance charges.

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Ontario, Quebec, and the Northwest Territories are served by Bell Canada. BC-Tel handles British Columbia. Those two phone companies handle 80 percent of long-distance calls in Canada. Ontario and Quebec have more than half the population of Canada; BC is the third-most-populous province.

At issue is whether high-priced long-distance calls should support cheap local service. Residential phone service in Ottawa, for example, is C$9.35 a month. In Washington, D.C., the same service would cost twice that, and in Portland, Ore., even more.

Long-distance rates are cheaper in the United States because of competition by companies such as MCI and GTE Sprint. Canadian long-distance charges are basically the same as in the US, but there is no cut-rate service and there are no alternative carriers. Many Canadians close to the border can route calls through the US and still save money.

The CRTC hearing was a battle of the giants -- Bell Canada against CNCP, which is a partnership of two big Canadian railroads. CNCP already handles telex service, which is profitable, and its connections to the rich railway companies would have meant there were no start-up problems.

With the year-old Conservative government in Ottawa, competition and cheaper rates seemed certain to win. CNCP even prepared ads in newspapers on the day of the decision, saying, ``The future of long-distance dialing is here.'' The ads were pulled when the ruling went against CNCP.

Bell Canada and BC-Tel are happy with the decision but not happy with the gap between long-distance and local rates. Both companies asked to ``rebalance'' the rates, meaning higher local charges and lower long-distance ones. There was even a proposal to put local calls on a meter, charging by the minute. This is aimed at computer users who tie up lines with long transmissions.

CRTC chairman Andr'e Bureau conceded there is ``an imbalance between long-distance and local rates,'' but he still refused any change.

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