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crtc

We Canadians pay the highest mobile rates in the world, thanks to the entrenched Bell-Rogers-Telus oligopoly that for years has been gouging customers with impunity. The CRTC, the regulatory body that has generally been in the pocket of the wireless companies, has been taking some baby steps towards actually protecting consumers in recent years, thanks to a huge backlash and an acknowledgement that the current situation is hurting business and innovation. But these baby steps haven’t done much to stem the tide.

Now, the long-awaited new Wireless Code announced by the CRTC after months of public hearings promises to address a few of the most egregious issues. Among them:

  • Canadians will be able to cancel their plans after two years with no penalty, even if they signed a deal for longer.
    This is all well and nice, considering that the three-year plan cycle was stifling innovation. But considering that there really aren’t any better options out there, cancelling and going to a competitor is illusionary freedom at best.
  • Caps on extra data and roaming charges to $50 and $100 respectively within a given billing cycle.
    This is perhaps the biggest win for consumers; stories of $22,000 phone bills or other ridiculous overage charges have abounded in the media lately, embarrassing providers and frustrating consumers. Even smaller amounts are ridiculous: A friend recently returned from a trip to the UK to discover a $1,287 phone bill, all for committing the cardinal sin of having forgotten to purchase a data plan, and having accessed Google Maps a few times while abroad. Such charges far exceed any reasonable costs that the providers have, and amount to a punitive tax on the unsuspecting for no reason other than they’ve been allowed to get away with it for far too long.
  • Canadians will be able to unlock their devices after 90 days, or immediately if they didn’t purchase a phone on contract.
    Anyone who wanted an unlocked device was already doing so on the grey market for a few dollars. It’s useful for people moving out of the country or for those of us who travel a lot; Canada remains one of the only countries in the world where you can’t get off a plane and pick up a local SIM card for a matter of a few dollars to use during your stay. (I do this all the time with my unlocked phone; it’d saved me thousands in roaming charges in countries from France to Israel to Vietnam.) But for most Canadians, with no competition to speak of in the market, unlocking your device will only allow you to switch to an equally bad provider, which is really no choice at all. All this means in practice is that providers will raise the prices of the phones in the first place, arguing that they can no longer subsidize them to as great a degree.
  • Contracts must be in plain language, with wording explained clearly and with the option to opt out of all changes.
    This ought to have been the price of entry and a given for anyone doing business. The fact that it needed to be said was sad. A step in the right direction, to be sure. But the Code doesn’t set out any restrictions on what the wireless providers can and cannot put in the contracts, as long as it’s spelled out in plain language.

What’s missing from this Code? Quite a lot.

  • There’s no mention of the fundamental unfairness of charging for incoming calls and text messages — a particularly egregious issue considering how much spam and how often my phone rings with unsolicited telemarketing calls. When I complained recently to Rogers about the dozens of robo-calls I’ve been receiving lately (“Congratulations! You’ve won a trip!”), I was basically told that I had no choice but to pay for the calls. There’s also the fact that we take the double-charging (paying for both outgoing and incoming minutes) as a given here in Canada, when most people from other countries would find that shocking.
  • There’s next to nothing being done to address the lack of competition in the marketplace. Bell, Telus and Rogers collectively own the vast majority of the wireless spectrum. Efforts in recent years to open up parts of the spectrum to bidding from smaller players are failing, since the small players are being sold one by one to the big ones. Virgin Mobile is owned by Bell; Fido is long owned by Rogers; Telus is in talks to buy Mobilicity; Public and Wind are both up for sale. Only Videotron here in Quebec is making a go of it, since as a larger cable company it can afford to compete, but its service and offerings aren’t exactly advantageous compared to the Big Three. And anyway, Rogers and Videotron have a network sharing agreement that will effectively prevent them from actually competing. With so few choices, we all lose, regardless of market regulation or consumer codes. Since, after all, the Big Three can charge whatever they want, as long as they spell it out in plain English.

Ultimately, this Wireless Code is Too Little, Too Late. It will get us to where we needed to be as a country five years ago, but it does very little to address the future. And we will continue to fall behind the rest of the world in terms of mobile adoption rates and technical innovation.

But, it’s a step in the right direction.

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The CRTC has actually momentarily remembered that its job isn’t to rubber-stamp requests from the big telecoms: It has squashed Bell’s plan to buy Astral and thus control a massive share of the telecom market:

“BCE failed to persuade us the deal would benefit Canadians,” said chairman Jean-Pierre Blais, who took over the post earlier this year and has quickly put a populist stamp on the regulator. “It would have placed significant market power in the hands of one of the country’s largest media companies. We could not have ensured a robust Canadian broadcasting system without imposing extensive and intrusive safeguards, which would have been to the detriment of the entire industry.”

Anglos are breathing a sign of relief because this will save TSN 690, Montreal’s English-language sports radio station (and official home of the Habs, when the NHL isn’t on lockout). Rival media conglomerate Quebecor is breathing a sigh of relief, because its dominance in the francophone market won’t be challenged by a Bell/Astral giant.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and one that should be of interest to all Canadians who are concerned about the extreme amount of media consolidation that we’ve witnessed in our country over the past couple of decades. When two or three companies are allowed to control both the media and the messaging via television, radio, newspapers, digital and mobile channels, we all suffer. Just about every Canadian has a nightmare story about one of the telecom giants (and Bell figures at the top of most of those nightmare story lists). Canadians already pay the highest cell phone rates in the world, and that’s only getting worse due to the lack of competition in the marketplace. The telecoms are all working hard to produce exclusive content, and are licensing it to their rivals for high costs. The limited choice in television service offerings is leading many Canadians to simply pull the plug rather than put up with poor service and content offerings for high prices.

Canadians are fed up. And plenty of them spoke up at the CRTC hearings. There were 9,700 interventions filed, and while many of them were from rival media conglomerates such as Rogers, plenty of others were from the general public. They were standing up to say that having one company in charge of nearly half of what we see, hear, read and watch isn’t in anyone’s best interest.

I’ve been really hard on the CRTC in the past for being in the pockets of the telecom companies and shirking its mandate to protect the consumer. Thanks to this decision, I have to issue this blog’s first-ever kudos to the CRTC. It’s a step in the right direction.  Keep it up.

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Time to pull the plug on cable?

04.08.2012

I have been a Videotron customer for more than eight years.  I have my home phone, internet and TV service with them. In that time period, they have increased the price of my bill 14 times, for a total increase of more than $24 a month more for the same services. That’s more than a [...]

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Musings on the US-Canada price gap

04.17.2011

A new BMO report suggests that on average, Canadians pay about 20% more for the same goods and services as our American neighbours do — even though the loonie is above par: BMO’s survey compared 11 items, including golf balls, Blu-ray movies, running shoes and cars. There is no denying Canada is smaller and that [...]

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Federal government to CRTC: you’ve gone too far

02.03.2011

You can tell it’s an election year when the government actually bothers to do something useful. Harper, seeing the writing on the wall after massive petitions and public outcry, has issued an ultimatum to the CRTC about its recent usage-based internet billing ruling: back down, or we’ll overrule you: Last week, the CRTC ruled that [...]

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Gouge, gouge, gouge

10.27.2010

Coming on the heels of the news-that-will-shock-nobody that Canadians pay the highest cell phone bills in the world, someone’s taking notice… and it ain’t the CRTC: Unlimited wireless data plans are almost unknown in Canada, and that’s a strategy telecom carriers elsewhere are starting to emulate as they look for ways to cope with booming [...]

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CRTC approves Al-Jazeera application

11.26.2009

The CRTC has approved a broadcasting license for English Al-Jazeera in Canada: I first blogged about this back in 2003, when media monitoring organisations were sounding the alarm about the virulent antisemitic content being broadcast on Qatar-based Al-Jazeera’s Arabic-language station on a daily basis, under the guise of news. The English affiliate doesn’t have quite [...]

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Harper promises crackdown on text message fees

09.25.2008

In a very un-Conservative move, Stephen Harper made a campaign promise today to regulate businesses more, cracking down on such unfair business practices as price-fixing, deceptive marketing, and incoming text message fees. While my usual philosophy is to tell government to stay out of business, in this case, I think Harper has the right idea. [...]

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Price-gouging: The cell phone market in Canada

07.08.2008

Two related stories in today’s Gazette, referring to all three major players in Canada’s mobile phone market: First, a story about how Bell and Telus are both going to start charging for incoming text messages. Considering most of the spam I receive is actually from Bell, that shows some nerve. Coupled with my recent notice [...]

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The last straw

08.13.2006

All right, that’s it: It was one thing when it was just getting Google to censor search results or other such “minor” infringements on freedom of speech. But now China has gone too far: It’s restricted the Simpsons: D’oh! China has banished Homer Simpson, Pokemon and Mickey Mouse from prime time. Beginning Sept. 1, regulators [...]

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