CRTC seeks input on consumer code for wireless providers

Should Canadian wireless providers be required to follow a standard set of rules when dealing with consumers on issues such as contracts and cancellations?

Wireless regulator wonders whether competition is protecting consumers enough

Should Canadian wireless providers be required to follow a standard set of rules when dealing with consumers on issues such as contracts and cancellations?

Canada's telecommunications regulator, which has traditionally opted not to regulate the wireless industry, is now putting that question to wireless providers, consumer advocates and the public. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced a consultation on the topic Wednesday.

It said the consultation was the result of requests: 

  • From consumer advocates for a specific rule to protect consumers from being charged for services by their old wireless provider after they have switched providers.
  • From wireless provider Rogers Communications Partnership for the CRTC to develop such a code.

Rogers proposed in March that the code might include rules that would:

  • Specify what kind of changes a wireless provider can and cannot make to a consumer's services during the life of a contract and how much notice is required for allowable changes.
  • Allow consumers to cancel contracts at any time provided they give their wireless provider 30 days' notice. Specify what fees wireless companies can and cannot charge consumers when they cancel their contract early.
  • Require wireless providers to give consumers 60 days' notice that their contract is about to expire and ban providers from automatically renewing it except on a month-to-month basis.
  • Require ads for wireless services to include all monthly fees.

The idea of creating such a national consumer code, although not one necessarily dealing with exactly the issues Rogers proposed, was backed by Telus Communications Corporation; the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which represents the wireless industry; and the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet and Policy and Public Interest Clinic, which represents consumers and the public in policy issues related to wireless telecommunications.

Market forces preferred over regulation: CRTC

The CRTC's acting chairman, Leonard Katz, said in a statement that a key question the commission hopes to answer through its consultation is whether there is evidence that it's necessary for the CRTC to intervene in the market by developing such a code.

"Our practice has been to rely on market forces as long as we are convinced that the interests of consumers will be looked after," he said.

The CRTC had previously concluded in the mid-1990s that there was enough competition in the wireless sector to protect consumers without regulation. Through this consultation, it is considering whether market conditions have changed "sufficiently to warrant commission intervention."

Those who have written to the CRTC asking for a consumer code argue that a number of provinces have introduced consumer protection laws related to wireless services, and that indicates that there is consumer demand for such rules.  For example, Quebec limits contract cancellation fees and bars wireless providers from automatically renewing contracts.

Tamir Israel, staff lawyer at CIPPIC, said in light of those existing provincial rules, it would be good to have a national standard. He added that before such a standard is developed, there should be a public discussion of what should be included, including some issues that Rogers did not bring up, such as digital locks on phones.

The CRTC is inviting comments on the issue to be submitted on paper or online by May 3. Others will be able to reply to previously submitted comments until May 14.

Consumer complaints to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services more than doubled in 2010-11, compared to the previous year, and 62.3 per cent of complaints were related to wireless services. Most involved alleged billing errors and contract disputes.