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Will the CRTC listen to citizens?

Relatives of deceased cell phone 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. Cell phone 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 OpenMedia.ca as part of a campaign to investigate Canada’s broken cell phone 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, OpenMedia.ca 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 week-long hearing will establish national rules for wireless service providers.

The hearing is being held in response to mounting public dissatisfaction with the Canadian cell phone market, almost 94% 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% in 2007-2008, up to 62% 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 OpenMedia.ca 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 cell phone market.

CRTC Commissioner 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 OpenMedia.ca 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 OpenMedia.ca 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.

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