This April, the CRTC put out a call for public consultation surrounding wireless telephone (cell phone) policies due to the large influx of complaints from consumers in Canada receiving less than satisfactory cell phone service. More recently, the CRTC will issue many changes, based on Canadian cell phone horror stories, to their regulatory policies surrounding wireless telecommunications.
Back in 1994, the CRTC decided that there was enough competition and innovation in the wireless telecommunications sector that it was unnecessary to regulate: “Our practice has been to rely on market forces as long as we are convinced that the interests of consumers will be looked after,” said Leonard Katz, the CRTC’s then Acting Chairman. “In this case, we are seeking evidence that our intervention is necessary before considering the development of a national wireless code.”
In December of 2009, the federal cabinet overturned a CRTC decision to not allow Wind Mobile from operating in Canada due to a lack of Canadian ownership. The federal cabinet’s reasoning, in part, was based on a lack of competition in the Canadian Wireless telecommunications market that lead to inflated cell phone rates and inarticulate cell phone contracts. Since then, the CTRC, under the new management of Jean-Pierre Blais, has called for a policy to be enacted to guide, not regulate, the quickly growing wireless market.
In the October decision, based on the public consultation, the CRTC states that: “the Commission determines that the conditions for forbearance have not changed sufficiently to require the Commission to regulate rates or interfere in the competitiveness of the retail mobile wireless voice and data services market.” While this may look as if they are going to back down from regulating the wireless market in any way, in fact there will be a new policy document known as the Wireless Code. In which, the rates and contract terms that carriers provide, will need to adhere to the Wireless Code in order to be decipherable to the average Canadian consumer.
There were over 970 submissions from individuals, wireless companies and consumer advocacy groups to the CTRC during the month long call for submissions. Almost unanimously, submissions requested that the CRTC implement some kind of policy surrounding wireless telecommunications, whatever it may be. Most consumer submissions requested that “issues related to the competitiveness of the mobile wireless marketplace, such as choice of competitive service providers and the cost of mobile wireless services (including fees for data and roaming), the clarity of contract terms, the clarity of advertised prices, changes to contract terms, locked phones, phone theft, the quality of mobile wireless services and customer service, and terms related to cancelling contracts (including early termination fees)” be addressed in a new policy.
Media/consumer advocacy groups Open Media and the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Research Group created a handy website called CellPhoneHorrorStory.ca where consumers could tell these groups their stories and sign a petition instead of individually telling their stories to the CRTC. This allowed the Open Media and CIPPIRC staff and lawyers to create a series of suggestions based on their own compiled data. Most of the their data correlated to the CRTC’s in which consumers were frustrated with the ambiguity of terms in their contracts and the lack of fixed rates. According to their submission to the CRTC, “the objective of this Code should be to enhance consumer confidence in wireless services in Canada by ensuring Canadians a basic level of protection in what is rapidly becoming an essential and necessary component of daily life.”
Larger telecommunication companies were also in favour of a code because they cited varying provincial consumer protection legislation that made it difficult to create consistent and easy to follow contracts across the company. The creation of the Wireless Code would make it easier for companies to comply to varying provincial legislation.
The province of Manitoba suggested that the code exceed provincial standards in order to facilitate the ease of compliance by wireless communication firms. The government of the Northwest Territories were strongly in favour of a new wireless code because “market forces are not sufficient to protect the interest of mobile wireless service consumers in the North.” The Province of Quebec said that despite the code, they would still legislate measures to protect wireless consumers in their province.
Not all of the large telecommunications companies saw the code as a necessary step. SaskTel pointed out that any form of regulation “would interfere with the competitive market forces in play today and would hamper innovation and progress relative to the global market.” They also cited the voluntary national wireless code already in existence that regulate Canadian wireless market activity as a useful measure in relieving consumer stress.
The next step for the CRTC will be another public consultation surrounding the substance of the Wireless Code, instead of its necessity.