February 12, 2013
OpenMedia original article
Lindsey brings your cell phone concerns to the CRTC
OpenMedia.ca is a grassroots organization that works towards informed and participatory digital policy.
Over the last few months, 2,859 Canadians visited OpenMedia.ca’s website to submit their “Cell Phone Horror Stories” and inform this hearing. Their comments were also used to inform our submission to this proceeding. The Canadians who commented are customers in the wireless market, and have experienced trouble with providers.
Acting on behalf of citizens, OpenMedia.ca and CIPPIC have put forward a submission that is grounded in the lived realities of Canadians. Their concerns are valid, and there is clear evidence to support them: Canada’s digital future will thrive through more choice and stronger incentives for innovation.
With so much at stake for millions of individuals and the industry as a whole, the outcome of this hearing should be a Code of Conduct that facilitates choice and innovation, that safeguards against price-gouging, and that is evidence-based and grounded in the lived realities of Canadians.
Firstly, we feel it’s crucial to facilitate choice and innovation in the wireless market because, as Chair Blais stated before the Heritage Committee in October,
“The future of the communications sector rests mostly on the rapidly changing technology, the dynamism and innovation of the industry, and the creativity of Canadians.”
Canada simply cannot afford a wireless market that is anti-technology. Every Canadian should enjoy real choice and diverse options for wireless service. Fostering real options in the wireless market will help lower prices and increase connection speeds, strengthening Canada's digital future.
The comment from Chris Rogers of Guelph, Ontario, provides an excellent summation of how punitive contract termination fees—an issue within the CRTC’s proposed scope for the Code—act to impede choice in the cell phone market. He writes,
“I find it despicable that some carriers continue their archaic contract cancellation policies, which keep customers afraid to leave their carrier if they want to try a new one. The companies know that these inflated fees scare their customers [...]. This behavior and policy is terrible and we need less of a stranglehold on our activities and options as customers. Let’s do something about this [...]”
As this citizen points out, high termination fees and automatic renewals, to name only two issues, are symptomatic of a situation where only a few incumbents control a vast majority of the market. Those large players, as such, have little incentive to innovate or to provide competitive service offerings, but only to retain their dominant positions.
The vast majority of the cell phone market is controlled by just three companies; Canadians want to be empowered to freely switch between providers, including to independent operators.
The Code must also safeguard against price-gouging. In order to have real choice, Canadians must be able to make informed decisions about the carriers they choose, the prices they pay, and the contracts they sign. We cannot allow these decisions to be clouded by unclear or inaccurate representations of communications services or of their prices.
Toronto's Jowi Taylor, for example, felt mislead by Rogers’ marketing tactics after she attempted to plan ahead for a trip. She writes,
“On a weekend trip to Chicago last year, I planned ahead and bought that $30 Month Pass in spite of the fact I was going for only 3 days but I wanted to be safe. […] I arrived home to a bill for over $400 for data roaming charges. When I called to complain, I was advised that the iPhone uses lots of data for background location services and that kind of thing, which is why my data charges were so high. Well, isn't that kind of what a smartphone is all about? Isn't that the purpose of having that phone in the first place? How can they advertise that you can stay connected on your travels and ‘Roam Free’? Why call the package a Month Pass when it's clear that even the most basic smartphone use is going to chew up the data limit in a matter of hours?”
The CRTC should protect Canadians from exploitation when they enter into cell phone contracts. This includes practices such as unclear fees including excessive termination fees, lack of advertising or contract clarity, and changes to agreements without customers’ consent.
You must hold carriers accountable for the promises they make to citizens and ensure that carriers compete fairly.
Finally, the Code must be evidence-based. This means that it must be grounded in the lived realities of Canadians, as a broken wireless market has real human consequences.
A lack of choice in the cell phone market leads not only to stagnation, not only to dead weight on our digital economy, but also to poor quality of service and continual disregard for citizens’ needs. In her Cell Phone Horror Story, Ontario resident Leah Nielson described the difficulty her mother experienced dealing with Bell representatives after the death of Leah’s father:
“a few days after the funeral [...] I had to start helping my mom take care of various business items, such as cancelling the cell phone that my dad had. I will never forget my mom calling the cell phone company. The operator at Bell was unbelievable. My mom explained that her husband had just died and that she needed to cancel his cell phone, but she would be keeping her phone. The operator didn't even have the courtesy to express her condolences and then proceeded to tell her that there would be a $200 + early cancellation fee.”
The CRTC has taken great strides forward in realizing that citizens are key stakeholders in the telecommunications market. I encourage the CRTC to continue acting in a way that demonstrates it is not simply an industry regulator, but also a Canadian institution uniquely positioned to champion the public interest.
The telecommunications industry is is very complex. To fully understand it one needs to understand engineering and technology, contract law and policy, customers’ rights, the role of communications in democracy and culture, and more. Citizens can be incredibly intelligent and still miss a detail in a contract, or still be uninformed about a policy that ought to protect them. They can have foresight but still be hit with unexpected life changes. They can be skeptical but still be fooled by misleading advertising. That is what the writers of this Code must acknowledge. This is about equipping Canadians to participate, to make informed decisions, and to exercise real choice. To do this, the CRTC must act upon citizen input—their stories—above all else. This proceeding has the potential to lay the groundwork for citizens to become masters of their own digital future.
My colleague will now discuss in more detail some elements of the draft Code you have presented. Canadians await your Code and in the hope that based on the frame outlined you will make it one that paves the way for a brighter chapter in our country’s digital history.
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