Catherine Hart: It's time for the CRTC to act on cellphone complaints

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      Relatives of deceased cellphone customers are unable to cancel a service without being hit with an exorbitant termination fee. Wireless customers are bound by unreasonably long contracts even under extenuating circumstances like a debilitating injury that leaves them unable to work. Cellphone users who live near the U.S. border have to fight each month to have "roaming" charges taken off their bill, as an American tower picks up their signal. Citizens are hounded for months or even years after erroneous bills are forwarded to collections agencies.

      These are a few examples from the thousands of citizen submissions collected by as part of a campaign to investigate Canada’s broken cellphone market. While these "horror stories" might be thought to be the exception rather than the rule, the results of this campaign suggest that examples such as these are increasingly becoming part of the lived reality of Canadians.

      This week, is bringing these stories directly to policy-makers at a high-level hearing being held by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The weeklong hearing will establish national rules for wireless service providers.

      The hearing is being held in response to mounting public dissatisfaction with the Canadian cellphone market, almost 94 percent of which is dominated by three incumbents, Bell, Telus, and Rogers. This is borne out by the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), which has noted a significant increase in the proportion wireless service of complaints it receives, from 31 percent in 2007-2008, up to 62 percent in 2010-2011.

      When asked this week if he was concerned about the proposed new rules, George Cope, the CEO of telecom giant Bell, patronizingly responded that “we’re sometimes trying to find a problem that doesn’t exist.

      Apparently the the customer is not always right, and is in fact in a bit of a tizzy over nothing.

      The frustrated Canadians who submitted stories to would probably take umbridge with Cope’s remarks. Given the monopolistic hold that the "big three" have on the market, these citizens feel that they have no choice but to accept the poor service that they are offered, and they are sick of it.

      The CRTC’s code of conduct would at least provide minimum standards for service providers, and is therefore an important first step towards improving Canada’s dysfunctional cellphone market.

      CRTC commissioner Jean-Pierre Blais has already demonstrated his intention to protect the public interest, and set the tone of the new commission by denying Bell’s takeover of Astral Media earlier this year.

      While a draft version of the code focused largely on improving transparency, from the evidence presented at the hearing on Monday morning it is clear that clarity is only the start of customer problems with their wireless providers, and hopes to see the CRTC make bold changes.

      A key theme on the opening day of the hearing was that many Canadians feel trapped in lengthy contracts. Big telecoms are claiming that customers aren’t switching because they don’t want to, but as the Public Interest Advocacy Clinic (PIAC) argued in its oral submission, Canadians are "frightened out of their minds to face the termination fee". Fear is not an appropriate method of inspiring customer "loyalty".

      Three-year contracts are excessive given that Canadians’ life situations change, and many devices are not even expected to last that long. As Canada’s Competition Bureau has noted, “Canada is one of the only jurisdictions worldwide where a large proportion of wireless contracts are three years in duration”.

      Similarly, there is no legitimate reason to lock phones to one service provider. As the joint CRTC submission from the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) and noted, in reality, people move province or country, or go on holiday, and want to choose the best local service option for them. Locking hardware unnecessarily restricts that choice and forces Canadians to incur often astronomical roaming fees.

      So while Bell’s CEO might say that this is a lot of fuss over nothing, citizens, public interests groups, and the CRTC disagree. As Commissioner Blais stated at the hearing on Monday, “the market’s not working”. The big three have had their way for long enough. It’s time for Canadians to come first.

      Catherine Hart is the communications coordinator for OpenMedia.caHart completed her graduate studies at Simon Fraser University, where she focused on the security, surveillance, and privacy implications of new digital technologies. She has also worked with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association on privacy policy issues relating to social media.



      Jim B.

      Feb 15, 2013 at 4:54pm

      While the terms of your contract are ominus, mobilty is not the only culprit. Try to cancel a land line or hydro acct.Telus will waived the fee for a deceased person but has a termination fee. for moving. BC Hydro has a $100.00 fee to change the acct name , plus a deposit. It is time to look as all these fees.


      Feb 16, 2013 at 9:10am

      Lets push for 2 year contracts and the abolishment of long distance within Canada, like they have in the US.


      Feb 16, 2013 at 9:46am

      Its time the phone companies treated us the same as USA,their rates are less than half of ours,on unlimited text and minutes,with only three servers all tied togetherwith thier rates what can we do.Maybe we shoul eliminte the CRTC as they are not allowing any competion in to Canada unless they conform to CRTC standards.I am shure that the big players in the US would love a piece of Canadian business and wake up telus,etc to drop their fees.After all is this not supposed to be a free market?

      Rick sos.

      Feb 16, 2013 at 8:03pm

      I just don't bother with a cell phone any more. It's nice to have but I can live without it. My land line is run by a Magic Jack through my computer. The phone companies ticked me off one to many times. I'm saving more than $120.00 a month this way.


      Feb 18, 2013 at 8:33am

      I'm done with Bell as soon as my contract is up, going back to a cheap, lightweight cell phone, with a cheap plan. Done with bells and whistles.


      Feb 27, 2013 at 10:23am

      I recently described how much I pay for a mobile phone in Canada and the miserable services I get with the plan to an American friend. His reaction was to laugh out loud and compare his services with delight, including the price he pays for his plan to add insult to injury. My reaction... Well, let's just say it involved a few expletives plus the desire for some real competition. Rather than whine about it in true Canadian fashion, I'm writing to whine about it (note the action).

      Of course this would mean the CRTC would need to act. Obviously I'm depending on a Canadian govt. organization to move at a speed that is anything faster than glacial. What an outrageous ask!

      I can still hear the sound of my American friend laughing...

      Am I supposed to be a "good" Canadian and wait patiently, give up altogether like a couple of respondents above (pathetic), or do I let my thoughts flow and be heard loud and clear.

      If this is my soapbox, then I'm calling for action NOW!!!

      I do not want to be a digital peasant any longer and I'm fed up with being ripped off by a handful of smug Canadian companies. My memory may be short, but believe me, when competition does arrive... preferrably before the next ice age I will remember. Do you hear that Telus, Rogers and Bell?

      I want to abolish all terms ie no contracts, I don't want to be charged for texts as they cost you NOTHING, and I want my minutes to go from what they are to UNLIMITED for less than HALF the price I'm paying now.

      I'm also calling for the CRTC to lift all restrictions so that Google Voice become available in Canada.

      I'm looking forward to the day when wireless carriers actually have to work for my business... It will come, but I don't have the patience of a Bhuddist monk and I won't be silent any longer.