CRTC hearing to tackle costly and hard-to-control cellphone charges

On Monday, the CRTC will hold hearings to review its wireless code for cellphone customers. One hot topic of discussion will be how to further protect customers from high cellphone bills.

Who approves data overage charges likely to be hot topic at review of wireless code in Gatineau, Quebec

The current wireless code didn't help cellphone customer Rosemary Pick, who got dinged for about $1,700 in data overage charges when her son approved exceeding the cap without her knowledge. (CBC Marketplace)

Remember when you obsessed about not going over your cellphone plan's talk minutes — fearing that if you did, you'd get hit with a monstrous bill?

Now that we live much of our lives online, there's a new fear — exceeding a plan's data limit.

In 2013, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission created a national wireless code in part to help limit costly fees like data overage charges, the fees wireless service providers tack on when you exceed your plan's limit.

However, many Canadians still have trouble managing their data and keeping their wireless bills in check.

On Monday, the CRTC will review the wireless code at a public hearing in Gatineau, Que. One hot topic will be possible changes to the code that would better protect consumers from runaway charges.

CRTC spokesperson Patricia Valladao said, generally, "the code is working," but it might require some fine-tuning.

"There's still a little bit of a glitch with consumers," Valladao said.

However, some believe the only way to control costs is to force providers to offer cheaper data deals — something the code doesn't cover.

"That's the only [way] we're going to see Canadians get relief from these exorbitant prices," said Meghan Sali with Open Media, a Vancouver-based internet advocacy group.

Bill still a shock for some

To help customers avoid running up their bills, the wireless code mandates that cellular service providers must cap international roaming charges at $100 a month and data overage fees at $50 — unless a customer agrees to pay more.

The measures appear to be helping — somewhat. A recent CRTC survey found that seven per cent fewer respondents experienced "bill shock" in the past year compared to 2014.

However, 21 per cent of people polled said they still get hit with unexpected charges on their monthly bill. And almost half of them (48 per cent) said data overage fees were the top culprit.

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

According to a recent CRTC survey, 21 per cent of respondents said they still get hit with unexpected charges on their monthly bill. (Dann Verner)

Under the current code, Canadians must give prior approval before they're allowed to exceed the $50 data overage limit, so why are unexpected overage fees still a problem?

Critics say one issue is that many service providers are allowing the cellphone user, rather than the account holder, i.e., the person paying the bill, to OK the charges.

"It could be a kid using their cellphone, being able to approve going over the $50," said Alysia Lau, legal counsel with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa. The organization will testify at the CRTC hearing on Monday.

Kids rack up bills

Last year, CBC's Marketplace found that Rogers, Bell and Telus all allow anyone on a family share plan to buy data above the $50 cap. All they have to do is respond "Yes" to a text message from their provider.

That's exactly what the son of Bell customer Rosemary Pick did — unbeknownst to Pick. The Fletchers Lake, N.S., resident got hit with a bill for more than $1,700 in data charges.

"I had never approved that, and I really can't afford to pay for it," Pick  told Marketplace.

After she lodged a complaint, Bell eventually withdrew the charge.

Lau says cases like Pick's illustrate why the wireless code must stipulate that only the account holder be allowed to approve added roaming or data charges.

CBC Marketplace revealed that wireless companies allow anyone on family share plans — including children — to authorize data overage charges. (CBC Marketplance)

CBC News asked Bell, Rogers, and Telus for comment on this issue. All said that they offer various apps and blocking options to help customers monitor and manage their data.

Rogers also recently introduced a data management tool specifically for family plan account holders. 

To further help parents, Bell has suggested to the CRTC that it require service providers to notify account holders by email when another user approves overage charges.

Telus has suggested the code be changed so that a user can consent to additional charges only if the account holder has provided approval in advance.

Another issue for critics is that the wireless code's cap currently doesn't apply to prepaid cellphone plans.

Lau says that shouldn't be the case. "It's just easier if the same rules apply to everyone," she said.

Mark Jablonski from Burlington, Ont., agrees. He says he wanted his son to have a cheap, prepaid plan, but he abandoned the idea when he realized there'd be no cap applied when his son exceeded his data limit.

"The prepaid people are the ones who are getting screwed," says Jablonski.

When asked about prepaid plans, Bell, Rogers and Telus said users can manage their accounts by paying up front exactly what they want to spend each month.

Caps are not enough

Open Media says even if the CRTC reforms the wireless code to provide better protections for Canadians, that won't eliminate the problem of exorbitant data charges for some customers.

"A lot of them are experiencing bill shock because of their own use," and not because of a reckless teenager in the house, says OpenMedia's Sali.

In a recent study, telecom research firm Tefficient found that, out of 32 countries, Canadian carriers charge the most for data.

To truly help consumers, Sali says, the CRTC needs to regulate data costs and make wireless services more affordable.

But the industry doesn't see it that way. The group that represents wireless providers, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, says that prices for data in this country are already competitive.

The CRTC has repeatedly said it does not regulate prices. But Sali points out that the commission did feel it was within its mandate to require a $25 basic TV package last year, for example.

It's "baffling" that the commission will give Canadians relief on their TV bills but not be willing to do the same for cellphone charges, she said.


Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Based in Toronto, Sophia Harris covers consumer and business for CBC News web, radio and TV. She previously worked as a CBC videojournalist in the Maritimes where she won at Atlantic Journalism Award for her work. Contact:


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