Canada's biggest wireless network operators suffered a major setback Thursday as the CRTC issued orders that will make it easer for smaller rivals to compete, which in turn will likely reduce costs for mobile phone users.

The federal telecom regulator adopted a number of recommendations that consumer groups and smaller telecom businesses pursued, arguing it should be less expensive for emerging operators to connect to national wireless networks on a wholesale basis.

The CRTC says regional networks that meet certain standards will be able to operate as a “mobile virtual network operators” - or MVNOs - in areas where competition is limited.

That means they pay wholesale for access to the major networks while maintaining a distinct customer base.

The CRTC has also given Bell, Rogers and Telus - plus government-owned SaskTel - three months to provide more affordable plans for seniors, low-income earners and people who use mobile phones sparingly.

So far, the Big Three have been staunch opponents of MVNOs - which they portray as businesses seeking the benefits of a national network without paying into the cost of building and maintaining expensive infrastructure.

“While there are encouraging signs that prices are trending downwards, we need to accelerate competition and more affordable options for Canadians,” CRTC chairman Ian Scott said in a statement.

Asked in an interview whether average Canadians will actually see prices come down more quickly, Scott said he thinks they will - but some consumers and markets will see more of a change than others.

“Not all rates come down at the same speed. Not all regions have the same experience,” Scott said.

He said the price of the more expensive packages has been coming down more than mid-range packages. And low-end packages have been largely ignored, which is why they're being required of the bigger carriers.

“Quebec has lower wireless rates than anywhere else in the country, on average. Why? Because Videotron has been a really effective competitor throughout most of the province. That's what we want to replicate everywhere.”

Videotron, which is owned by Quebecor Inc., is among several regional operators. Others include privately held Eastlink, which has a wireless network in Atlantic Canada, and SaskTel, which is owned by the Saskatchewan government.

Consumer advocate Laura Tribe, of OpenMedia, says the measures don't go far enough.

“I think this is incredibly disappointing and a huge missed opportunity for the CRTC,” Tribe said.

“It really doubles down on the idea that a regional provider will be sufficient to correct the extreme market share that Bell, Telus and Rogers have.”

Calgary-based Shaw Communications Inc., owner of Freedom Mobile, has been considered one of the facilities-based regional carriers but its future is in doubt after it agreed last month to be purchased by Rogers.

The Rogers-Shaw deal is subject to various federal approvals, including by the CRTC.

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