Force ser­vice providers to live up to wireless code, con­sumer groups ar­gue

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - TERRY PEDWELL

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.

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE FILE PHOTO

The code of con­duct gov­ern­ing the wireless in­dus­try is the sub­ject of hear­ings that the CRTC is hold­ing this week.

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