Extra cellphone charges like data block and activation fees under fire

Some critics question why customers must pay fees for routine features like activating a phone or a SIM card when they're already paying big bucks for a cellphone plan.

Should you be paying an activation or data block fee on top of your pricey cellphone plan?

Questioning added fees on you cellphone bill? So are some industry critics. (Shutterstock / fizkes)

You've just forked over a chunk of cash for a cellphone and a monthly plan. When your bill arrives, you notice additional fees — for anything from activating your phone to acquiring a necessary SIM card.

Some critics question why customers must pay these extra charges when they've already invested big bucks — Canada is home to some of the most expensive cellular plans in the industrialized world.

The additional fees irritate Mohammed Halabi with MyBillsAreHigh in St. Catharines, Ont. For a price, his company helps Canadians negotiate better deals with their telecom providers.

Halabi believes Canadians shouldn't have to shell out extra for routine cellphone services.

"You're paying premium pricing," he says. "You expect that premium customer service without all these additional little charges."

Focusing on the big three cellular providers — Bell, Rogers and Telus — CBC News looked at various additional fees critics believe should be included as part of your cellphone plan.

Data blocking fee

About a year ago, Bell cellular customer Fred Longley in Niagara, Ont., got hit with a surprise data charge. The 67-year-old doesn't use data so he called Bell to complain.

He says the company waived the $6 fee and advised him to sign up for its wireless data block service to avoid any more accidental data usage. 

Longley felt he had no choice and signed up. But he doesn't understand why Bell charges him a monthly $1 fee to block his data.

"It stinks," says Longley. "It's just not right. Why am I getting charged for something I don't use?"

Bell recently upped its data block fee to $2 a month. Telus also charges $2 a month for the service. Rogers provides it for no charge. 

Rose Behar with MobileSyrup says some added cellphone charges aren't fair to paying customers. (Rose Behar)

Like Longley, some industry analysts question the rationale for charging the fee.

"There's a certain irony in paying for data block in the first place," says Rose Behar, senior reporter for the tech site MobileSyrup in Toronto.

"You're paying to deny a service from a particular account. So you're paying for nothing in a literal sense."

Bell told CBC News that data block is an optional service that's popular with customers who want to protect themselves from unwanted data usage.

Telus did not respond to our request for comment on any of the fees mentioned in this story for which it charges customers.

Activation fee

To activate a phone as part of a cellular plan, Bell customers must pay $15 and Rogers customers, $20.

That fee raises the ire of critics who believe activating a phone should be included in a plan. "On top of you having to buy air time and this and this and that, you're also charged to just be a customer," says Halabi.

"It seems like quite a bit for trying to give a company your business."

Both Bell and Rogers say their connection fee covers costs related to starting up a new account, beyond just activating a device.

SIM Card

In 2012, Telus announced it was no longer charging its $35 activation fee. "Our customers have told us they feel activation and renewal fees are unfair," said the telecom in a statement.

However, the company also announced it would start charging $10 for SIM cards which connect a phone to a provider's network. Telus said the charge was necessary because it was originally included in the now obliterated activation fee.

Telus' SIM card fee has since climbed to $15. Bell charges a $9.95 fee for a SIM card for new customers. Rogers only charges a fee — $9.99 — if you don't buy a phone through the company.

Behar believes, along with activating a phone, a SIM card should come free with a cellphone plan. "It is a key element of your wireless service, so to my mind it is unfair to ask people to pay for it."

Mohammed Halabi in St. Catharines, Ont. negotiates with service providers on behalf of clients. (Mohammed Halabi)

Halabi says that if providers must charge for the card, they should charge the actual cost — which he estimates is $2 or less.

It's a "piece of plastic," he says.

Bell pointed out that current customers upgrading to a new phone generally don't get charged a SIM card fee.

Rogers says its charge covers not just the card, but also distribution and stocking costs.

Unlocking fee

Rogers, Bell and Telus all charge a $50 fee to unlock a phone — a necessary step if a customer wants to switch providers.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is reviewing unlocking fees following much criticism about the charge.

The CRTC invited the public to comment online and many took the opportunity to blast the fee.

"That's called a 'Ransom Fee' or 'Hostage Fee' in any other business," wrote one mobile customer.

Behar believes cellphone providers charge unlocking fees to dissuade customers from moving to another provider.

"It just is a fee that's put in place to keep customers where they are," she says. "It's something that I think would be great to eliminate in order to afford Canadians a little more freedom."

During a recent CRTC hearing, Bell, Rogers, and Telus warned that if they didn't charge an unlocking fee for the few customers who want it done, the cost of doing it would have to be passed on to everyone.

If you feel you shouldn't be shelling out for an unlocking fee or any other added charge, Halabi suggests calling your provider and asking for a reprieve. He says you might be able to worm your way out of some charges, such as the activation fee or paying for a SIM card.

"Cause a little bit of noise," he says.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris has worked as a CBC video journalist across the country, covering everything from the start of the annual lobster fishery in Yarmouth, N.S., to farming in Saskatchewan. She now has found a good home at the business unit in Toronto. Contact:


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