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Paying to Pay Going Away

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If you’ve received a paper bill from a communications service provider in the last few years, be it for TV, internet, or phone, it’s likely you saw an extra charge on that bill for the bill. This is the practice of ‘pay to pay’, where companies charge the consumer for the bill that they’re sending. The fee is generally in the $1-$2 range and it can add up for consumers.

This practice was the subject of PIAC’s report “How to Pay the Piper. The fee is generally painted as ‘environmental’; a way to encourage consumers to use online billing. The report recommended that a discount to encourage consumers to switch to online billing. In the meantime, the fee is making companies a lot of money. PIAC estimates that, from this charge, communications and banking industries combined are making between $495 and $734 million dollars annually from this practice. This ends up being costly for people who either can’t afford, or choose not to have, internet service. Especially considering, for many years, sending out a bill was simply considered a cost of doing business for companies.

PIAC took their research and their gauge of the public opinion to the CRTC in the form of a part 1 Application to end the ‘pay to pay’ practice for telecommunications. The concern prompted the government to address the issue in the Throne Speech and it seemed only a matter of time before it was ended. The CRTC, took a different approach. Instead of ruling on PIAC’s application to end the billing, the CRTC ‘closed’ the file and had a closed-door meeting with the companies to try to work out a deal.

“Before the closed-door meeting started we had said that it was unfair that they had this private meeting and that we weren’t invited. We thought that they were going to fail to deliver on what they had promised,” said John Lawford, Executive Director for PIAC.

Without any pressure from PIAC’s application against the practice, the CRTC found themselves with little leverage against the companies. The deal they worked out was not an end to the practice, but just an exemption for certain groups. That left a lot of consumers footing the extra charges because they either didn’t have internet or didn’t want to pay their bills online.

PIAC continued to pursue the issue, pushing for the removal of the fee in the media and with political powers. With all the momentum it had, as well as the promise in the Throne Speech, it was difficult to explain a ‘compromise’ to consumers. It was James Moore who announced the government would be putting legislation into the upcoming budget to finally end ‘pay to pay’ billing in communications services. While there was some dramatic back and forth on the issue, John Lawford says this is textbook public advocacy.

“We did all the groundwork to discover how big the problem was, we looked at the rationale, which they said was ‘environmental’, which wasn’t true. We showed the general displeasure of Canadians, with enough evidence to bring an application to the CRTC,” Lawford stated. “When they closed it, it became a political matter and the government listened to, what I think was, a large portion of the population who didn’t think this was a fair practice. It costs money, is unnecessary and people dislike it, so we helped to get rid of it.”

While unnecessary fees on paper bills for communications have been eliminated for Canadians, there is a looming issue with banks. Banks still charge this fee for account statements and have taken the position that statements are not bills. PIAC believes consumers do not see the difference and continues to work on elimination of fees on banking ‘statements’. While the banks have provided relief for some groups, such as seniors and veterans, this compromise was rejected for communications bills. PIAC is keeping a close eye on this issue to make sure that all Canadians are not financially burdened next by receiving their banking ‘statements’.

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