Technology & Science

Cellphone users want roaming charges capped

The majority of Canadians would like to see a $50 cap on their wireless data roaming charges, and more than half don't touch their mobile devices during trips to avoid billing surprises, a new study says.

Most Canadians surveyed won't use their phones while travelling

The majority of Canadians would like to see a $50 cap on their wireless data roaming charges, and more than half don't touch their mobile devices during trips to avoid billing surprises, a new study says.  

About 92 per cent of Canadian consumers surveyed said they wanted a $50 limit imposed on data charges incurred outside of the country, according to a survey released by the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre on Monday.  

About 89 per cent of Canadian consumers surveyed believe they are being charged too much for wireless data when travelling. What's more, 44 per cent of Canadian consumers surveyed online in October 2011 said they simply turn off their phone when travelling to avoid "bill shock," while 16 per cent left their devices at home, it added.  

Most Canadians avoid using their cellphones while travelling to avoid running up roaming charges that can total hundreds or even thousands of dollars. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

"It speaks to the uncertainty that consumers face when they go abroad, and the fear of incurring a bill that would be outrageous," Janet Lo, legal counsel at consumer advocacy group and co-author of the report, told CBC News.

"I think that to be safe, consumers are just shutting off their phones or leaving them at home to make sure they don't get any surprises."  

Many Canadian consumers also said it was difficult to understand the roaming charges, and 89 per cent of those surveyed said they had received an unexpectedly large bill when they returned home, the report said.  

Travellers can rack up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in charges in very little time. For example, Toronto marketing consultant Robert Lendvai was charged $600 for a 20-second download of a PowerPoint presentation while on a 2009 vacation. Vancouver woman Alanna Fero was asked to pay a $27,000 phone bill when she returned from a trip to Egypt.  

Call for roaming charge limits, SMS warnings

Canadians have a "reticence to even use the device when abroad," said Lo.  

"I think consumers are definitely frustrated with international data roaming, and unsure how to better manage their roaming charges," said Lo.  

In its report, the PIAC called for more protections for Canadian consumers, including a requirement for wireless providers to set a monthly international roaming spending limit, chosen by the consumer.  

Other recommendations include sending wireless phone users a warning on their phone via SMS message as they approach that limit, measures already in place in the European Union, said Lo. 

Canadian subscribers should be alerted at least twice before their data usage reaches that limit, the report said.  

"What consumers are asking for are better tools to manage that spending when abroad so they don't come home to high 'bill shock' ... our report seeks to recommend some practices that carriers can put in place, or that the CRTC can mandate to better protect consumers," said Lo.     

The CRTC is developing a national code of conduct for wireless carriers. The goal is to have consumers better understand their rights and wireless companies know their responsibilities.

The commission is expected to issue a draft code by the end of next month, after which a second round of online consultations will be launched. Public hearings are also set to begin in February.

Telus, Bell customers alerted to local roaming rates

Telus spokeswoman Donna Ramirez said Telus already gives its customers notifications about how much data is being used when they're outside the country.

"We automatically give customers the lowest pay-per-use rates when they're travelling abroad," she said.

Telus's customers are notified when they use 10 MB of data and are asked if they want to continue using data, Ramirez said.

"We can all be doing much more from an education perspective to be helping customers understand what happens when they're roaming," Ramirez said from Toronto.

Bell spokesman Jason Laszlo said Bell has been sending travelling customers a text message advising of local roaming rates since 2009.

"To ensure customers don't come home to a larger than expected bill, upon reaching 100 MB of usage, data roaming service is suspended and can be restored either at the customer's request or automatically after 30 days from the start of their data roaming," Laszlo said.

This service has included customers travelling to the United States since the spring, he added.

With files from The Canadian Press