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Summer Newsletter: A Sign of Things to Come

The Wireless Code has been a cornerstone of consumer rights in telecom. It’s implementation gave consumers a myriad of protections and placed in new rules to expand their options when shopping for a wireless plan. Recently, the Code has been undergoing a review to see where it is now and where it can go from here, something PIAC has had keen interest in as one of the primary players in getting the original code created.

In the late 80’s, the days of brick phones, the general attitude of regulators was that wireless didn’t need any regulation. By 2010, a cellphone could fit in your pocket and had become almost a necessity to stay connected with society. It also came with a laundry list of complaints consumers had about the service they were provided.

Consumers, however, found that their complaints went mostly unheard.  For nearly 30 years, there was no regulation and no system in place to hear and deal with problems outside of the wireless providers themselves.  PIAC first addressed this problem within the wireless industry by suggesting an Ombudsman to deal with telecommunications.  Once instituted it became clear that both provincially and nationally, the majority of telecommunication complaints were actually wireless complaints.

PIAC began chipping away at the unfair practices themselves.  Issues such as bill shock and phone unlocking were common themes in consumer complaints. The first big issue that PIAC tackled was a practice referred to as ’30 Day Notice’.  The 30 Day Notice charge was a practice by some wireless companies to, upon termination of a contract, charge for an additional month’s services if they were not given a full 30 days of notice prior to the customer changing to a new cell phone provider, effectively double billing them in the last month.

When the Wireless Code arrived on June 3rd of 2013 it featured many of the requests put forward by PIAC.  Some of those rules included a $50 (data overage) and $100 (domestic and international roaming) cap, the right for consumers to refuse contract changes, the right to cancel at any time with clear cancellation fees that were limited, the right to unlock your phone 90 days after purchase and clear, understandable language in contracts.

The Wireless Code has given Canadians protection when entering into the wireless market that they haven’t seen in its over 30 years of existence. Four years later, the Code has been widely considered a great success for Consumers, eliminating many questionable practices by wireless companies and also ensuring flexibility and clarity when picking a wireless plan or phone.

In this review of the Wireless Code, PIAC has been seeking to expand the Code to offer further protections for consumers. For example, issues such as ‘family plans’ and the overage charges attached to those plans. If you subscribe to a family plan, there is some uncertainty regarding how much you will be charged for going over the limit, how the limit is calculated, and who gets notice of the overage. As noted in the original Wireless Code, there is a $50 overage charge cap, however in the case of some family plans companies could charge as much as $50 per person on the plan, resulting in hundreds of dollars in possible fees or more. Obviously, with these plans often having children or teenagers using them, it can become problematic to keep them reined in on their data usage.

Another issue present at the proceeding was the unlocking of phones. Many phones are still not unlocked, even after the completion of a wireless contract (ie. when you’ve already paid for the phone). Consumers must pay hefty fees to unlock phones, over $38 million last year.

“We’d like to see the Wireless Code ‘futureproofed’,” said Alysia Lau, counsel for PIAC. “We want to keep it updated, and ensure that it’s something consumers can turn to for protection when they go shopping for a wireless plan or phone.”

At the hearing, it was pretty much unanimous that the Wireless Code had been a success. Advocates and companies alike were looking to see it stay, but we at PIAC always want it to be better and we want it to be up-to-date for the issues that consumers face today. We were happy to participate in this review, and we look forward to seeing the growth of the Wireless Code as a steadfast line of protection for all Canadians.

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