Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mad At Cell Phones Siphoning Your Wallet? Join The Crowd.

I like my cell phone, damn it. I was a latecomer to the cell world, but when I moved out of province I needed one because I was always on the go.

Within a month or so, when the bills started arriving, I realized I had essentially signed a three-year auto loan. The rates as presented, didn't look too bad -- in reality, I could have bought a good used car for the same monthly payments.

And to get rid of it, I have to pay somewhere between $400 and $500. Why? Just because.

By the end of last year, this neophyte cell user was furious, resentful, and determined to tighten the screws and kick the tires till they flew off and rolled in the ditch, when the end of the contract came around.

I have company -- lots of it:
Class-action lawsuits against telecommunications providers are flying like text messages from a teenager. Websites and Facebook groups protesting cellphone rates are popping up faster than spam in your inbox. People are even rallying on Parliament Hill to oppose the purposeful slowing down of internet connections.

There is a new disconnect happening — one that politicians in the upcoming election need to take note of. Normally placid Canadians are speaking up. Consumers have never been angrier with their telecommunications service providers and they are letting the companies know it.


Why has all this negative sentiment toward telecommunications companies come to a frothing boil over the past year? Consumer groups say it's the result of a push by successive governments for deregulation.

"Deregulation is giving carriers even more chutzpah than they normally have," says the Public Interest Advocacy Centre's John Lawford. "This is what you get. It's the chickens coming home to roost."

The Liberals started the ball rolling in 1995 when then prime minister Jean Chrétien abolished the cabinet position of Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. The position's duties were folded into the new position of Industry Minister.

John Manley was the last minister of consumer affairs before the Liberal government abolished the position in 1995. The Conservatives followed up by issuing a policy directive to the CRTC shortly after taking office in 2006 that effectively declawed the regulator. Following recommendations made by a Liberal-appointed industry review panel, then minister of industry Maxime Bernier told the CRTC to avoid regulating proactively. The agency should get involved in an issue only after a problem had been clearly established, he said.

The Competition Bureau, meanwhile, has been loud and clear that it is against intervening in the market. ...The result today is that there is no consumer voice on a national level, Lawford says..."There's nobody at the cabinet table to say, 'Just a minute, people are angry,'" he says...

Bernier pushed further last April when, against the advice of a Parliamentary committee, he ordered the deregulation of local phone markets, which freed telephone companies such as Bell and Telus from CRTC rules so they could ostensibly compete better with cable providers such as Rogers, Vidéotron and Shaw Communications Inc.

Bernier promised the move would boost local phone competition and lower prices, but there has been little evidence of that, consumer groups say. In fact, Rogers raised its phone prices earlier this year while Telus was rebuked by the CRTC in April for introducing a new long-distance access fee to customers using call-around services such as Yak.

Consumer groups say the government's deregulation push — without enacting suitable protection for customers — was a serious mistake.

"It was really an error," says Anthony Hémond, telecommunications analyst for L'union des consommateurs. "I don't understand why the government chose to go in this direction."
It's no secret that Canadian cell plan costs are high compared to other countries, and that shifting to a new carrier doesn't seem to help much.

I've added Skype to my computer so my long distance calls are nearly free. But I will be following news about cell carriers and their fees closely over the next few months, and I'll never take another 3 year contract -- I'll go back to a land line first.

Any advice?

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