Force service providers to live up to wireless code, consumer groups argue
GATINEAU, QUE. — Some cellphone companies are passively or actively violating Canada’s wireless code of conduct and the rules need to be tightened and enforced, consumer groups have told a hearing.
While consumer complaints have dropped since the code came into effect in 2013, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre told the review that wireless users need greater controls put in place so they don’t suffer from “bill shock.”
“Certain wireless service providers have ... knowingly or unknowingly avoided or violated or attempted to change clear wireless code requirements, and have not largely been stopped,” advocacy centre executive director John Lawford told the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission on Monday. “This must change.”
The CRTC review comes amid calls for greater parental control over household cellphone data charges and clearer rules governing wireless service cancellation fees and how caps on data overage fees should apply.
Speaking on behalf of the Consumer Association of Canada, the National Pensioners Federation and the Council of Senior Citizens Organizations of British Columbia, the advocacy centre told the regulator that, in some cases, wireless providers offer data and voice as optional services, despite stipulations in the code that key services be clearly spelled out in wireless contracts.
The first code effectively killed three-year phone contracts, limiting them to 24 months. But that led, in many cases, to higher monthly bills as service providers were forced to recoup the cost of subsidized smartphones over a shorter period. While Telus Corp. has suggested the CRTC revisit the twoyear limit, arguing that providing a three-year contract option could reduce monthly bills by amortizing the cost of so-called zero-dollar phones over 36 months, BCE and Rogers Communications have not specifically proposed changes to contract length provisions.
Currently, service providers can charge consumers for the residual value of subsidized cellphone hardware if they cancel their contracts early. For example, a customer could be charged $300 if they cancel a two-year contract after one year, if the initial value of the incentivized phone was set at $600. But the code doesn’t allow carriers to recover the cost of other promotional items, such as new TVs or tablets.
Industry and consumer groups acknowledge the code has been largely effective.
“We love it,” Lawford said of the consumer-protection provisions of the code.
The most recent survey commissioned by the CRTC revealed about 46 per cent of consumers paid fees for exceeding their data limits. But the TNS Canada survey, conducted in September, also showed that only about one in five respondents experienced “bill shock” from their wireless services, down from 28 per cent in 2014.
Complaints to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services also dropped sharply between 2015 and last year, according to the watchdog.
But CRTC chair Jean-Pierre Blais questioned Monday whether the code should spell out how carriers charge for data overages when increasingly popular family plans are now spreading data use over a number of devices in a household.
In its testimony, Telus told the hearing its “default” policy allows anyone with a device on such a plan to approve a data use extension, but noted it offers data management tools that allow for greater control and warn consumers when they’re about to reach or exceed their data limits.
But account holders have complained that the tools offered by service providers often don’t work and that it’s too easy for children to approve data overage charges at the push of a button, sometimes resulting in massive bills.
The code of conduct governing the wireless industry is the subject of hearings that the CRTC is holding this week.