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Regulators to rein in cellphone contracts

If you've had trouble figuring out your cellphone contract, you're not alone. Last year, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services fielded more complaints about wireless phones...

If you’ve had trouble figuring out your cellphone contract, you’re not alone.

Last year, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services fielded more complaints about wireless phones than all other telecommunications services combined.

To combat this growing problem, the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission is looking to develop a “wireless code of conduct” to govern how cellphone contracts are written, and it is seeking input from the public.

It’s been accepting submissions from both industry and the public since April, but for the next three weeks the CRTC will be hosting an online discussion about the issue.

But angry consumers aren’t the only ones clamouring for more regulations; telcos are also calling for them.

In fact, the CRTC was prompted to look at the issue after Rogers submitted its own draft wireless code to the regulator.

In the last few years Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have all passed their own provincial legislation governing how cellphone contracts are written. Before its legislature was prorogued last month, Ontario was considering similar measures.

Having one set of national rules would be better for everyone, said Mark Choma, spokesperson for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

“Canadians would be better served if it was done on a national basis so Canadians in every part of the country have access to the same information about their wireless contracts,” he said. “It’s a more fair system for consumers, and it also makes sense for the industry because they wouldn’t have to adapt all of their systems possibly 13 different ways.”

With approximately 27 million wireless subscribers across the country and no overarching code governing how contracts are written, there are a lot of complaints.

They range from things like penalties for leaving a contract before the end of its term, charges for subsidized handsets, and unilateral changes of contract terms mid-contract.

The way wireless contracts are written often makes it difficult for customers to figure out just what they’re being charged for, say consumer advocates.

System access fees are the most egregious, said John Lawford, who works as counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Before the government started to sell off blocks of wireless spectrum to telcos, cellphone users had to get their own licence from the now-defunct communications department. But while those licences have disappeared, the fees haven’t.

“There’s no reason that they shouldn’t roll the $7.95 or whatever they charge into the general per-month cost of having your phone,” said Lawford in a previous interview.

The CRTC’s online discussion will run until Dec. 4.

It will focus on three main questions: What should the wireless code cover? How should complaints related to the code be resolved? And how should the wireless code be reviewed to ensure it’s working?

The CRTC plans to hold another public hearing in February, after it tables a first draft of the code.

To participate, people are encouraged to visit:

The hope is that a lot of people will chime in, said Choma.

“Having a well-informed customer is what everyone wants the goal to be,” he said.

Contact Josh Kerr at