Paper billing fees add up to over $500M a year, study finds

Canadians are paying from $495 million to $734 million annually to receive paper bills they received free prior to 2010, according to a study by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Public advocacy group complains it is shut out of private meeting in Ottawa on paper bills issue

Canada's big telecom companies say they will keep charging customers additional fees for producing and mailing paper bills, although they have agreed to some exceptions. (CBC)

Canadians are paying from $495 million to $734 million annually to receive paper bills they received free prior to 2010, according to a study by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

The burden of the pay-to-pay rule implemented by telecom, internet and other firms falls heavily on low-income people and seniors who are less likely to have access to the internet, PIAC says in its report. An estimated 15 per cent of Canadians do not have internet access at home.

The federal government has twice promised to end pay-to-pay policies, first in its October 2013 throne speech and later in the 2014 budget.

PIAC agrees that charging fees for paper bills should be eliminated and has filed a joint application with the Consumers Association of Canada to the CRTC requesting an end to such fees.

But consumer advocacy groups have been shut out of a hearing into the paper bills issue being held tomorrow in Ottawa. Instead, the CRTC will consult behind closed doors with industry representatives to work out an approach to fees for paper billing. 

“A majority of consumers have indicated their disapproval of being charged extra for a paper bill,” said Jonathan Bishop, author of the report.

“Most Canadians believe supplying a paper bill in the mail without having to pay an extra fee is part of the company’s cost of doing business,” he said.

The advocacy group’s study was done with funding from Industry Canada and references the CRTC’s probe into the extent of paper billing by telcos.

But it also includes the costs of bank statements, a fee that may be buried in the overall transaction fee levied for an account.

A bill is part of the contractual relationship between a service provider and consumers, Bishop said in the report.

“It is the means by which a service provider reaffirms its service responsibilities to a customer and a customer clearly understands their financial obligations to the service provider. Therefore, the ability of a customer to access, understand, and act upon their billing statement is critical,” the report said.

Low-income Canadians and seniors are paying an estimated $77 to $102 million per year for paper statements and bills, a cost they can ill afford, Bishop added.

In a probe of paper billing by telcos conducted this year, the CRTC found most telcos, cable, internet and wireless companies said the move to e-billing was a means of being environmentally responsible. However, a U.K. study found that most consumers were printing out their paper bill after they access it online.

The telcos have offered online billing since 2001 but moved to add fees for paper bills in 2010.

While there is no charge for credit card bills from Canada’s big banks, the CRTC also found most banks levy a fee of $2 to $3 for a paper bank account statement.  Seniors are often able to negotiate an end to these fees.

The banks also have signed a commitment to eliminate fees for paper statements on their low-cost accounts in January 2015.

In calculating how much Canadians are paying for paper bills, PIAC estimated that about 10 to 30 per cent of those who do have internet access opt not to have an e-bill.

No love for e-bills

In a survey of Canadian attitudes toward online billing commissioned by PIAC, about 33 per cent said they were not comfortable or not at all comfortable getting a bill online and additional five per cent said they had no access to the internet. Among those who did not like e-bills, 33 per cent said they were worried about security.

About 74 per cent of respondents somewhat disapproved or strongly disapproved of companies charging people extra fees to get their bills on paper.

The survey was conducted by Environics over the phone among 2,005 Canadians aged 18 years or older between Aug. 27 and Sept. 1, 2013. The margin of error for a sample of this size is +/- 2.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. 

In addition to the fees for the paper bills, Canadians in many provinces must pay GST and provincial tax or HST on top of the cost of a paper bill.


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