Bell quietly drops system access fee

The cellphone system access fee is all but extinct. Bell Canada has quietly axed the charge, joining rivals Rogers and Telus.

The system access fee is virtually extinct with Bell Canada quietly axing the charge, matching prior moves by rivals Rogers and Telus.

The company made the move without officially announcing it on Friday.

A spokesperson for Bell did not respond to a request for comment but a company store in Toronto confirmed the $6.95 monthly charge has been discontinued on new plans. Existing customers can stay on their current plans and keep paying the fee, or they can move to the new offerings.

However, like Rogers and Telus, Bell has increased the price of most monthly plans by $5, according to the store.

Bell's move means no national cellphone carrier is charging the fee, although SaskTel is still charging customers $6.25 a month in Saskatchewan. A spokesperson for SaskTel said the company is reviewing its fee structure.

Bell Mobility has also largely dropped the monthly 911 fee, which varied in price depending on the province. Customers in Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Newfoundland are now exempt from the fee, while prices range up to 53 cents a month in other provinces, according to Bell's website.

The fading away of the system access fee began in March 2008 when Telus launched its discount brand Koodo without it. Rogers and Bell followed suit with their respective discount brands Fido and Solo, but all three companies kept charging the fee on their core services.

Rogers was first to pull the trigger on its core brand in September, but it added a new "regulatory recovery fee" that ranges between $2.46 and $3.46 depending on the province, and raised the base price of its plans.

Telus got rid of its fee and raised base plan prices last month, while MTS last week replaced it with a "wireless network charge" of $3.50 a month.

Virgin Mobile, which has never charged the fee and became a wholly owned subsidiary of Bell this summer, two weeks ago blasted Rogers for replacing one charge with another. "A made-up fee by any other name is still a made-up fee," a Virgin ad read.

Telecommunications analyst Iain Grant of the Seaboard Group said Bell was likely trying to quietly change its plans in light of Virgin's ad.

"I think that Bell was hoping that nobody would notice, especially after their criticism of Rogers for Rogers' bolder move to eliminate the fee," he said. "Rogers, of course, increased its prices to make up the difference, but we are not troubled by that. Now consumers have a better idea what they are being charged for."

The companies all said the charge was necessary to help cover network maintenance and upgrade costs, as well as regulatory expenses.

The established providers are under pressure from new cellphone companies that are planning to start service in the next few months, including Videotron, Dave Wireless and Public Mobile. All have said they will offer simple rate plans without hidden charges.

All companies that charged the fee are still subject to a class-action lawsuit seeking the return of more than $20 billion to consumers. Tony Merchant, the lawyer behind the lawsuit, says the cellphone providers misled customers for years into thinking the charge was a regulatory or government fee when in fact it wasn't. The cellphone providers have denied the accusation and the lawsuit is before the courts.