With the Saskatchewan government threatening to privatize its public telecommunications utility, SaskTel, a quick glance east to Manitoba shows the many ways privatization can turn out badly for the public.

Both SaskTel and Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS) were established as public utilities in the early 1900s. Both serve similar-sized populations, and have similar sizes in terms of revenues, subscribers, types of services and number of employees relative to their populations. But that’s where the similarities end. MTS was privatized by former Manitoba Conservative Premier Gary Filmon in 1997, while SaskTel has remained a public utility. But now the Saskatchewan government is considering privatizing it.

MTS’s priorities are serving its private shareholders and commercial customers, rewarding executives and promoting itself through advertising. Meanwhile SaskTel focuses on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and providing returns to its public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan. 

The cost of SaskTel’s basic phone service is about 27 per cent lower than the lowest-cost phone service offered by MTS. SaskTel has received recent awards for highest customer satisfaction for wireless (Canada wide), for internet and TV (western Canada). The utility has also drawn accolades as a top Canadian employer, top diversity employer, and top green employer. SaskTel has also been more innovative than MTS, contrary to claims that private companies are more innovative.

While MTS generates about twice the profit of SaskTel, it goes to shareholders and executives, with little returned to the people of the province. MTS has paid virtually no taxes for many years and doesn’t expect to pay taxes until 2027. In contrast, SaskTel has paid an average of almost $100 million per year in dividends back to the province.

Despite their similar sizes and revenues, MTS CEOs have earned between $3 and $5 million a year: five to ten times as much as the CEO of SaskTel. Meanwhile SaskTel pays its workers, such as its operators, about 25 per cent more than MTS, even though they’re members of the same union. SaskTel workers also have better pensions and benefits than workers at MTS.