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Angry about cell charges? Dial Clement and the CRTC

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission must be retooled for modern society. Case in point. Ottawa recently squandered $1.

The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission must be retooled for modern society.

Case in point.

Ottawa recently squandered $1.4 million on a three-year project to develop an online calculator that would help consumers compare intentionally cryptic cellphone plans.

The calculator was popular among most focus group participants who tested it.

But Industry Canada, which oversaw the project, couldn’t make it work, according to department officials.

The plans offered by the nation’s three cellphone providers - Bell, Rogers and Telus - are ... um, “too complicated” to be crunched by an online calculator, they said.

The calculator didn’t include data plans or service bundle discounts.

Funny that.

British cellphone users have been using such a calculator for months, with data plans and service discounts.

The calculator compares more than 1.3 million cellphone contract deals across the UK, comparing a person’s existing contract to others that are available.

The free service is saving people up to 42 per cent off their cellphone costs. It’s funded through commissions that are paid to the calculator site by cell providers who gain new customers through the service.

The Cambridge scientists behind the successful British project, which cost the equivalent of about C$1.4 million, were puzzled by Industry Canada’s assertion ours couldn’t handle data plans or discounts.

“It was pretty surprising you could spend $1.4 million on a calculator and you can’t do data ... at the end of the day, didn’t you know you had to do data?” Cambridge mathematician Stelios Koundouros, who created the UK tool, told CBC Radio One.

“Data doesn’t interact with minutes or texts, it’s a separate consumption unit and a separate add-on or feature of the plan, in which case it’s pretty simple. It’s just a separate function in your code.

“If you’ve managed to create an engine that measures minutes and texts you should be able to do the same for data. I can’t see how you can justify that that’s not true.”

The Canadian calculator was to launch in June. But weeks before it was to go live, it was shut down.

It should be noted Bell, Telus and Rogers had been vigorously lobbying Industry Minister Tony Clement to deep six the project.

It was killed because it didn’t work, said Darren Cunningham, Prentice’s spokesman, adding he didn’t know why the project was launched in the first place.

Canadians pay more to use cellphones than almost all other developed countries, according to a new study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The average Canadian pays $500.63 on cell plans. Only users in the US ($508.26) and Spain ($635.85) pay more, on average, it said.

A tool to evaluate intentionally murky cell plans would have helped a little.

But the lack of competition in Canada combined with virtually no oversight by the CRTC is the biggest problem.

In the absence of competition in Canada, it’s time the CRTC stepped in to regulate cellphone and internet providers, areas which are currently outside its mandate.

For example, land-line phone service is currently considered a basic service. These days, high-speed internet should probably be added to that list, as anyone in the Yukon who saw the impact of the recent outages - widespread business shutdowns and personal communication blackouts - can attest.

Conveniently enough, the CRTC is currently reviewing what a basic telecom service is.

Telecoms and the public are invited to send comments on the subject to the national regulator by November 13, but they have to inform it the submission is coming by September 25.

It should be noted that Ofcom, Britain’s equivalent to the CRTC, gives accreditation to cellphone plan calculators, such as the one designed by the Cambridge team.

The CRTC currently does not. But there’s a functional model at Industry Canada that could probably be picked up at a fire-sale price.

It might be worth a look. (Richard Mostyn)