Whatever Would Dr Bell Say?

Somewhat lost in all the excitement over the Senate expenses scandal has been an interesting and increasingly bitter philosophical battle which has been developing between the Federal Government and the cellphone industry on the question of foreign competition.

A poll commissioned by Bell Canada and TELUS released in August by Nanos Research[1] showed that 50 per cent of Canadians were “somewhat or strongly opposed to foreign-owned wireless companies setting up shop in Canada, with 46 per cent in support.”  The same poll found that “Although price is an important aspect of their wireless service, Canadians clearly believe that lowering wireless service prices is not as important (7 percent) a government priority as lowering gas prices (45 percent) or college/university tuition (33 percent).”

Nevertheless Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Industry Minister James Moore seem determined to introduce more competition into the marketplace for wireless services in Canada as a means of forcing down prices and improving service.  And the Federal government is spending $9m advertising its case direct to Canadians, much to the irritation of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

Whether or not one empathises with the big three cellular providers: Bell, TELUS and Rogers, who control 85% of the market and clearly do not wish to share their wireless space with Verizon or anyone else, it seems somewhat strange to mount a protectionist campaign citing the cost of  university tuition as justification for the government backing off.  The Federal government has no jurisdiction whatsoever over university fees.  But perhaps this simply illustrates how useful university tuition rates have become as a rallying point for popular disenchantment with Government.  If this is the case our sector really is in trouble.

I have been musing on what Alexander Graham Bell would say about the arguments of the company which bears his name today.  Given that Dr Bell spent his happiest times here in Cape Breton on the estate of Beinn Breagh near Baddeck, and that he – like his wife Mabel – died an American citizen, one might surmise that if he were alive today he might have an opinion on the prospects of US competition entering the Canadian marketplace for telephony.

So would the Scottish born inventor and educationalist approve attempts to shut out wireless competition from south of the 49th parallel or not?

For those interested in the achievements of Alexander Graham Bell, Charlotte Gray’s 2006 biography Reluctant Genius provides fascinating insights into Bell’s values and motivations.  He was certainly no entrepreneur, preferring to leave Mabel’s father to manage the commercial opportunities that flowed from his invention of the telephone.  In contrast, his great rival, serial inventor Thomas Edison – whom he just beat to the draw on patenting the telephone – was an altogether more competitive individual with very clear pecuniary motives.

It is clear from the picture painted by Charlotte Gray that the inventor of the telephone was first and foremost a humanist with a highly developed imagination.  It was his obsessive but non-commercial outlook that underpinned Bell’s interests in genetics (to help Cape Breton sheep farmers become more productive), aeronautics (to develop manned flight) and hydrofoils (to assist in the defeat of Germany in the Great War).  As Bell said: “The inventor looks upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world.”

From his passionate commitment to education for the hearing impaired to his later interests in world peace, the ‘greenhouse effect’ (a phrase he actually employed) and the importance of developing alternatives to fossil fuels, Bell was an intuitive, multi-disciplinary thinker with an eye for applied science in service of humanity.

Thus it is probable that Bell would find the current debate on wireless provision in Canada somewhat unedifying, predicated as it is on the protection of domestic commercial interests rather than – according to the Government – price and service to customers.  And we may be reasonably certain that Bell would not have used the cost of university tuition as the best negative comparison to the price of telephonic communication given his lifetime involvement in higher education.

So perhaps it is time for Cape Breton to help reclaim the Bell ‘brand’ and reattach it to the values of Alexander Graham Bell and indeed those of his wife Mabel: the pursuit of scientific discovery and the development of technologies that will serve humankind and the environment.  Arguably that would constitute a more powerful legacy for Dr and Mrs Bell of Baddeck than the current debate over consumer versus corporate interests being played out over the issue of Canadian sovereignty of the ether.