Canadians are being asked by the federal telecom regulator to help write a national wireless code that will oblige carriers to write clear contracts for the sale of wireless devices and services.
“Our goal is to make sure that Canadians have the tools they need to make informed choices in a competitive marketplace,” said Jean-Pierre Blais, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television Commission (CRTC).
“In the past, Canadians have told us that contracts are confusing, and that terms and conditions can vary greatly from one company to another. We are asking them to assist us in developing a code that will help them better understand their rights as consumers and the responsibilities of wireless companies.”
The commission decided years ago there’s enough competition in the industry that it doesn’t have to regulate cellphone rates customers pay. In fact, as part of today’s decision the commission concluded that “market indicators demonstrate that consumers have a choice of competitive service providers and a range of rates and payment options for mobile wireless services.” As a result, it has no reason to lift its ban on regulating rates.
However, it decided a code might demand advertised prices of carriers be expressed clearly.
John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advoacy Centre (PIAC) made that point in approving the CRTC’s move. “There’s a lot of things people can control for (in a code) including the clarity of their contracts and termination penalties that will make a huge difference” to subscribers, he said.
The commission concluded that a national code is better than having provincial governments pass legislation that will vary from region to region, a point made by carriers who have been urging the commission to act.
Officials at carriers were quick to approve of the CRTC’s decision. “A consistent national standard is good for consumers,” said Shawn Hall of Telus media realtions. “It ensures all Canadians enjoy the same safeguards in terms of service. A provincial system with 12 regional regimes dealing with the same issues is inefficient and unfair to Canadians.”
“Mobilicity supports the CRTC’s move as we have been at the forefront of asking for consumer protection in this regard for some time,” Stewart Lyons, the carrier’s president, said in a statement. “Bell certainly sees a national code that applies to all wireless service providers across Canada as the best approach, both for consumers and the industry itself,” the company said in a statement. “It will ensure one, efficient national set of uniform standards, rather than the inconsistent provincial standards we have now.”
Ken Engelhart, Rogers’ senior vice-president of regulatory affairs disagrees with a suggestion that carriers should have to notify wireless subscribers they’ve exceeded data or voice limits. That’s expensive, he said. Rather, it should be up to subscribers to monitor their usage through online tools, as Rogers provides for its customers.
As for enforcing the code, he said that if a carrier files the code as part of its tariff with the CRTC it will be legally biding.
Quebec already has provincial legislation covering wireless contracts, and several provinces are thinking of doing the same. To avoid conflicts, the CRTC could exempt provinces with legislation from its code.
“While this is a positive initiative for consumers, we need to make sure it isn’t watered down in the end,” said Wind Mobile CEO and chair Anthony Lacavera in a statement. “Canadians need a code of conduct that is both mandatory and with enforceable consequences for breaches,”
The commission set out a suggested list of things a code could demand be part of a wireless contract, including that it
–be written in plain language;
— include conditions under which a service provider may amend contract terms;
–cover the conditions under which consumers may terminate their mobile wireless contracts early, including how cancellation fees may be applied;
–ensure advertised prices for services – including data and roaming– be clear in contracts, including provisions that service providers may not charge consumers for optional mobile wireless services they have not ordered;
–guarantee that the code applies equally to mobile wireless services purchased separately or as part of a bundle of telecommunications and broadcasting distribution services;
–state clearly the conditions under which a provider must notify customers that they have exceeded the limits of their service agreements and will incur additional fees, and
a provision that consumers with capped or metered billing of mobile wireless services be provided with adequate tools to monitor usage;
–showhow service providers must disclose, and notify customers of amendments to, their privacy policies;
–show how service providers disclose hardware warranty policies and extended warranty policies, including how service charges will apply while the handset is being repaired, and the conditions under which a handset may be unlocked;
— a provision that addresses how service charges and contract terms will be applied if the customer’s handset is lost or stolen;
— a provision that addresses the conditions under which a service provider may request a security deposit;
–and clearly state the conditions under which a service provider may disconnect mobile wireless services.
Consumers can submit their options to the CRTC online or in writing by Nov. 20.