Rogers, Bell hike overage fees at time when customers thirst for wireless data

Both Rogers and Bell have hiked their data overage fees at a time when Canadians are thirsting for more wireless data. One expert says instead of price hikes, it's time for Canada to adopt unlimited data plans.

Each additional GB now costs between $10 and $20 more a month

Dakota MacLean-Verner says he yearns for an unlimited cellphone data plan so he doesn't have to police his data use. (Dakota MacLean-Verner )

Both Rogers and Bell have hiked their data overage fees at a time when Canadians are thirsting for more wireless data.

When cellular customers hit their data cap, they can add more — usually at a steep price. For its new shared family plans, Rogers has increased its data overage charge by 40 per cent: from $5 to $7 for each additional one-tenth of a gigabyte. A full extra GB now costs $70 — a $20 hike. 

Bell also charges $7 for every extra tenth of a GB for new customers and those switching plans. The telco raised its fee from $5 to $6 in 2016 then upped it again to $7 in April — a 40 per cent increase over two years. 

"It's a shocking jump," tech writer Rose Behar says about the fee hikes. "It's not something that the Canadian consumer wants to see."

Rose Behar with tech site MobileSyrup says the data overage fee hikes are 'a shocking jump.' (Rose Behar)

Telus hasn't raised its overage fee so far this year; it still charges $5 per 0.1 GB. But Behar says the telco isn't off the hook because the price only applies to the first GB of added data. If customers want to buy more, the fee jumps by 100 per cent to $10 for each tenth of a GB, or $100 per GB.

"In situations where you just need data, and you must continue to accept data overages charges, that's highway robbery," says Behar, senior reporter for the tech site MobileSyrup in Toronto.

MobileSyrup tracks cellular plan price hikes and was the first to report Rogers' new fee increase. But Behar is unsure when Telus hiked the charge for customers who need more than a gigabyte of extra data.

"It sort of happened under the radar," she says.

It's under control, say telcos

CBC News asked Telus when it introduced the $10 charge. The company declined to say but did tell us that overages beyond a gigabyte are rare and that it helps customers find suitable data plans. 

Rogers told us it has updated its wireless plans to offer more data and value. Rogers, Bell and Telus all said that they provide their customers with effective data-management tools and that the majority of their customers don't rack up overage charges.

But according to a 2016 CRTC-commissioned survey, wireless data overage charges are common. The survey found that close to half of the respondents (46 per cent) paid data overage fees in the past year. Seventeen per cent said they got hit with the added charge three times or more during that time.

"Managing data overages in a way that prevents additional fees continues to be a struggle for many Canadians," noted the report.

TNS Canada conducted the survey by phone in September 2016, polling 1,277 Canadian adults who have a cellular plan.

Another recent CRTC report report found that in our wireless world, Canadians' data use spiked by a whopping 44 per cent in a single year from 2014 to 2015.

Time for unlimited plans?

Considering the data growth explosion, Behar says Canadian providers need to start offering reasonably priced unlimited data deals as opposed to hiking overage fees.

"It's certainly an unusual and frustrating move at a time when we see a lot of the bigger carriers in the U.S. obviously doing unlimited plans," says Behar. "We in Canada look extremely unfavourable in comparison."

All major U.S. cellular providers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile — now offer phone plans with unlimited data ranging from $50 to $90 US a month.

There are some caveats — for example, data speeds can slow down after burning through between 22 and 28 GB — still, that's a lot of data.

Major U.S. cellular provider T-Mobile announced an unlimited data plan in August 2016. (T-Mobile/YouTube)

Due to fierce competition, American providers keep sweetening their deals. In the latest offering, AT&T Unlimited Plus customers now get free access to HBO channels with their $90 plan.

No major Canadian provider offers reasonably priced unlimited deals for individual users. Freedom Mobile and Rogers' discount brand Chatr allow customers to continue using data at a slower speed at no charge when they hit their cap.

But Chatr customer Dakota MacLean-Verner says his deal is a far cry from unlimited. That's because when he reached his 2 GB cap and the speed slowed down, he claims he could barely use the internet.

"It took five minutes to load a webpage," says the 14-year-old who lives in Toronto. "Technically you can use it if you want to sit there and wait a long time, but nobody has that kind of time."

Rogers told CBC News that it clearly informs Chatr customers that added data comes at a reduced speed that could hamper some online activity. 

Regarding unlimited deals, Rogers, Bell and Telus all say that they offer varied data plans — both big and small — to meet customer needs. For example, Rogers now offers a family plan with a whopping 80 GB. It ranges from $355 to $380 a month and added phone lines cost extra.

However, customers like MacLean-Verner still don't find all their needs are being met. His father has upgraded him to a more expensive 6 GB cellular plan but the teen still finds he must police his data use. 

"It's not fun," says MacLean-Verner. "I would love unlimited data because I don't have to worry."


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