MONTREAL — Bell was once again accused of abusing its dominant market position, this time by Telus, the latest competitor to oppose the telecom giant's bid to buy Astral Media.
Telus, echoing criticisms from Rogers and Cogeco, told a public hearing Thursday that Bell negotiates content deals with an eye on gaining a competitive advantage for its own media holdings.
Addressing the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission hearing at the Montreal convention centre, a Telus executive said Bell has failed to keep its word when it comes time to negotiate broadcast rights.
"We saw Bell deny us access to the content or offer them under unreasonable conditions," Ann Mainville-Neeson, director of regulatory affairs for Vancouver-based Telus, told the hearing.
"Bell will always be a winner," she added, "because some consumers will transfer their subscription to Bell to access available content, or because Bell has managed to impose exorbitant prices on its competitors."
Bell's exclusive Vancouver 2010 Winter Games package ruffled its competitors' feathers. Mainville-Neeson said Bell, the Olympic rights holder, didn't make content available for an acceptable price.
The Telus executive also challenged a claim Bell Canada CEO George Cope made earlier this week at the hearing into the $3.4-billion Astral deal. Cope said Monday that Bell offered its mobile Olympic content to Rogers and Telus for $3 million a year but Mainville-Neeson said that isn't true.
"The offer is much more expensive than $3 million per year," she said.
Bell says the Astral deal would give it control of less than the maximum 35% of the English-language market decreed by the CRTC. But a monitoring report from the broadcast watchdog reports the deal would expand the company's market share to 39.7%.
Several competitors, including QMI Agency's parent company Quebecor, have said Bell's size, strength and scope puts rivals at a strategic disadvantage.
News of the proposed BCE-Astral deal earlier this year prompted Quebecor, Cogeco and Eastlink to launch a "Say No to Bell" joint campaign.
They have received support from Rogers, Telus and the Canadian Cable Systems Alliance (CCSA), as well as four consumer groups.
The Telus executive said Thursday that Bell Media has demanded market-penetration guarantees for its TSN sports channel, to the detriment of consumers.
"Simply put, Bell's conditions have forced Telus to include TSN in its basic (television) package," Mainville-Neeson said.
Telus Quebec vice-president Clement Audet said his province is in a particularly detrimental position where Bell is concerned.
"Bell is the only one that covers all of Quebec," he said. "It will be the only one that can distribute content to all Quebecers. The balance of power is not at all the same."
Mainville-Neeson added that almost no one in the industry believes in the vertical integration model touted by Bell.
"The only two parties that seem to believe that there are sufficient safeguards are Bell and Shaw, the two most integrated players in the country. That says a lot."
Montreal-based BCE is Canada's largest telecom company and its multimedia division, Bell Media, owns 28 television stations and 30 specialty channels, notably CTV and TSN. The company also owns 33 radio stations and dozens of websites, including the Sympatico.ca portal.
Astral, also based in Montreal, founded The Movie Network in 1984 and now owns several pay and specialty television channels as well as conventional and satellite radio stations.