Technology & Science

Aborted cellphone rate calculator cost Ottawa $1.4M

The federal government spent $1.4 million over three years on developing an online calculator that would compare cellphone plans, only to scrap the project weeks before it was set to launch this summer.

The federal government spent $1.4 million over three years on developing an online calculator that would compare cellphone plans, only to scrap the project weeks before it was expected to launch this summer.

About 60 per cent of the cost went toward services within Industry Canada, the ministry overseeing the project, and staff time for product and IT development. The remaining costs were for research, design and other services from outside contractors, as well as administrative costs.

"That said, even at this cost technical limitations prevented us from building a tool that captures the full spectrum of products and offers available to consumers in the cellphone marketplace," said Michel Cimpaye, a spokesman for Industry Canada.

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The Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a consumer watchdog, expected the calculator to launch in June after receiving glowing reviews from focus groups that had tested it. The calculator let users punch in how many minutes and text messages they expected to use, and which extra features — such as voice mail — they wanted. It then listed offers from Canada's various cellphone providers.

Industry Canada last week said the tool was scrapped because of technical limitations that would have prevented accurate results. Critics blasted Industry Minister Tony Clement for caving in to lobbying from providers such as Bell, Rogers and Telus, which argued through their industry group that the tool was not useful because it did not include data rates or service bundle discounts.

Clement's director of communications, Darren Cunningham, on Thursday said the calculator never had a launch date.

"For us to put a tool out there that didn't accurately measure the marketplace would actually be irresponsible. We would be putting out a product that wasn't doing what we said it does," he said.

'That was before our time here'

Industry Canada said the expenditure wasn't a total waste.

"Through this project, the Office of Consumer Affairs has developed a greater understanding of consumer needs in the cellphone marketplace," Cimpaye said. "In addition, possible future products would benefit from the work done on this project."

The project's length indicates it was started under former minister of industry Maxime Bernier, a staunch advocate of deregulation and free markets. Bernier, who became foreign affairs minister in 2007, left cabinet in disgrace in 2008 after it was revealed that he had left documents at a girlfriend's house. Julie Couillard had previous links to the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang.

Cunningham said he didn't know why the government had started the project in the first place.

"I can honestly say that was before our time here, I don't know. The intent is admirable, but it's certainly something where the result didn't work," he said.