Catherine McCoy has had her share of frustration with cellphone companies, and she says the CRTC's upcoming code of conduct for the industry is "a great idea."
At one point the 26-year-old McMaster student received a bill from Telus for about $100 worth of data, for example, which the company explained was the result of her phone updating itself automatically. McCoy was eventually able to get that fee removed from her bill.
'You would think that these people weren't even human. They could not possibly have cared less about my problem!' —Catherine McCoy, McMaster student
Then came the problems with her phone.
"Last summer, I was at a pub with one of my girlfriends in downtown Toronto," said McCoy. "I went to take my new iPhone out of my purse so I could take a picture of us. Lo and behold, my phone wasn't there."
McCoy said she certainly didn't blame Telus for her phone being stolen, but it was the struggle to get her phone replaced that caused her the most grief. She tried to buy a refurbished phone, but was told she would have to keep paying the bill on her stolen phone - as well as the bill for a refurbished phone - until the contract ran out.
"My only option, as it was turning out, would be to buy a brand new $800 phone," McCoy said.
Persistence and constant arguing paid off for McCoy, who finally managed to get a new phone tacked onto her contract for a reasonable price.
"I get that phone companies have policies and procedures, but come on," said McCoy. "You would think that these people weren't even human. They could not possibly have cared less about my problem!"
According to a report released earlier this month by OpenMedia.ca, a non-profit organization, McCoy's story is not uncommon. The report includes thousands of "cellphone horror stories" sent in by frustrated Canadians who have had bad experiences with service providers.
The stories range from people who could not get out of contracts, to people who were treated with disrespect by customer service representatives. Lindsey Pinto, communications manager for OpenMedia.ca, said the stories were sent to the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
She added that many of the issues stem from the fact that three big companies - Bell, Rogers and Telus - dominate the market.
"We haven't been doing enough to encourage competition, to encourage independent ISPs to enter the market and to lower the costs and barriers to entry for those independent ISPs," said Pinto. "These big guys have been doing things like retaining their customers through restrictive contracts … and automatic renewals."
The CRTC has been taking note of the pressure from consumers and organizations such as OpenMedia.ca.
Barbara Motzney, chief consumer officer for the CRTC, said it became apparent in April of 2012 that everyone - from service providers, to consumers, to advocacy groups - was calling for change in the industry.
As a result, the CRTC started taking submissions and drafting a national code of conduct to ensure Canadians are guaranteed clarity when it comes to cellphone contracts.
"We got some cellphone horror stories, absolutely," said Motzney.
"We also got a lot of really thoughtful comments on what the issues were … whether it was things like the length of a contract, when changes get made to a contract, unlocking your cellphone - a whole range of issues were raised."
Wireless industry response
OpenMedia.ca was not the only group calling for change. The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which represents wireless providers, was one of the groups urging the CRTC to create a national code of conduct.
'When you have a website called 'Cell Phone Horror Stories', you're kind of setting yourself up. You know what kind of answers you're going to get.' —Marc Choma, CWTA
Marc Choma, director of communications for the CWTA, said the OpenMedia.ca report reflects a polarized segment of wireless customers.
"It's a collection of anonymous anecdotal stories," said Choma. "Obviously, carriers take those things very very seriously, but there were a couple thousand people that had responded to this survey. When you have a website called 'Cell Phone Horror Stories', you're kind of setting yourself up. You know what kind of answers you're going to get."
OpenMedia.ca's Pinto, however, pointed out that the stories were not submitted anonymously. They were forwarded to the CRTC along with the names and information about the people involved. She added that the stories were subject to content analysis, and the types of complaints were organized as statistics in the report.
Choma also said that the idea of limiting contract lengths, which arose as a major issue during the CRTC's gathering of submissions, is a moot point.
"No Canadian has to sign a contract," said Choma. "You can buy your device up front and pay full price. Really, all the three-year contract does is just [provide] another option for consumers that may not have $700 to shell out right up front.… So you can pay for it up front or you can enjoy a heavily discounted price on your device. But at the end of the day, you have to pay for it one way or another."
Telus representatives declined to comment on the OpenMedia.ca report and the CRTC's proposed code of conduct, but representatives from Rogers and Bell weighed in.
Jennifer Kett, senior manager of media relations for Rogers Communications, said the company is heavily in favour of the CRTC's development of a national code of conduct.
"We think it's really important for there to be strong consumer standards across the country," said Kett. "No matter what province you live in or what town you're in, you should have access to the same rules and the same protection."
Jason Laszlo, media relations representative for Bell, said the company is taking significant steps toward improving customer service, including addressing the idea of prohibitive contract lengths.
"In many cases customers have the option of one, two and three year terms, and the vast majority choose three year," said Laszlo. "Super phones, smartphones and tablets are increasingly complex and powerful devices, and Canadians overwhelmingly prefer the heavily subsidized price we offer on the hardware with a three year term."
CRTC weighing options
The CRTC has finished taking submissions and Motzney said it has received thousands of responses from Canadians on all sides of the issue.
She said the national code of conduct is being reviewed and will hopefully be finalized within the coming months.
"Given how many people have participated, it'll be an issue that is dealt with with priority," said Motzney. "The code is about trying to empower customers. Making sure the information they get is accurate, easy to understand, increased transparency in pricing - the idea is that Canadian consumers will be able to make informed choices."
McCoy said she hadn't heard about the call for submissions to the CRTC, but said the code of conduct was a positive move.
"I think the idea of a governing body looking to protect the interests of consumers and stop them from being exploited is a great idea," the McMaster student said.
The CRTC's national code of conduct will not override existing provincial legislation that has been put in place to protect consumers. Instead, it will be designed to work alongside those provincial laws, according to the CRTC.