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How Will the CRTC Protect Cell Phone Users?

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A CRTC hearing took place last week, where a draft code of conduct to protect cell phone users was broken down, debated, and negotiated. Up for discussion were contract length, automatic renewals, notifications of overages, caps on fees, device unlocking, and much much more.

In case you missed it, I put out a bit of an update midway through the week, and I had also been live-tweeting the hearing from inside.

The CRTC, as you may know, had announced that they would develop the code back in October, after requests from big telecom companies (surprisingly enough), public interest groups, and, of course, citizens who had been speaking out about Canada's broken cell phone market. We at OpenMedia.ca started collecting Canadians' cell phone horror stories as soon as we could after that, to inform the Code and to ensure that the CRTC knows telecom price-gouging and limited choice have real human consequences. Those comments appeared in our submission to the proceeding, and were the basis of our oral comments at the hearing, which you can watch right here:

Now if you think a week of telecom hearings would be dull, you'd be dead wrong. There's a lot at stake, first of all, as Canada falls behind the rest of the industrialized world in many things digital. After years of being lobbied by big telecom and all but shutting citizens out, policymakers are just starting to take note of the problems Canadians are facing, and they're scrambling to take action.

When it comes to the cell phone market in particular--where three large players (Bell, Rogers, and Telus) rule--price-gouging and poor service are related mainly to a lack of choice. Knowing their customers have nowhere to turn, big telecom has been able to take big liberties with our communications interests, to the benefit of their bottom lines. But since Canadians started coming together as a community to fight for our digital rights, the tables have started to turn.

This relatively sudden change, however, has left industry lobbyists a little perplexed. They're used to getting what they want when they want it, with little push-back. They had grown accustomed to telling policymakers that Canadians are unqualified to participate--that we're not stakeholders in our own digital future--and getting away with it. Listening to them at the hearing this week made one thing clear: they still don't know how to speak to the public interest, and they resent it.

Bell, in particular, made that clear when they answered Commissioners' questions Thursday morning. They echoed the excuses put forward by Rogers, the only provider larger than them, which told the CRTC ad nauseum that the cell phone market is fine as is, that protections would be impractical for them, and that their customers wouldn't want them.

Long term contracts? According to Bell, Canadians love those. Caps on additional fees? Unnecessary and inconvenient. Contract clarity? Okay, but we'll decide what that means.

Bell, along with the other big telecom providers, also pushed for the Code of Conduct to supersede existing provincial rules. The proposal on the table now is that it exist alongside them, allowing cell phone users to benefit from whichever framework is stronger for their purposes. While only one national Code wouldn't be such a bad thing, we're in trouble if it actually weakens existing safeguards where they exist, and gives big telecom even more leeway to stifle choice and innovation.

Overall Bell's presentation made it clear that they're either out of touch with Canadians' needs, or ambivalent. While I completely understand that they have shareholders to please and a company to run, I'm always bowled over to see Big Telecom lobbyists so unwilling to come forward with helpful input that truly defines what does and does not make sense for their business and their customers, rather than simply pushing back on anything and everything that may introduce more choice or curb price-gouging. These lobbyists are people, aren't they? Can't they understand that this is about Canada's digital future?

Luckily (for my mental health), the hearing included more speakers than just big telecom. It was encouraging to hear the testimony of public interest lawyers and academics, who had done an incredible amount of work to demonstrate that Canada's wireless market simply isn't living up to citizens' reasonable expectations, and prescribe what needs to happen to remedy that. It was exciting listening to small, independent wireless providers like Mobilicity and Wind, which offered up realistic amendments to the draft Code that would give them more room to offer their services. The indie providers also reminded us that big telecom price-gouging isn't the only way of doing business in telecom.

The hearings may have ended on Friday, but the process is far from over. There are still submissions to file and conversations to be had. We at OpenMedia.ca, of course, want to continue hearing from you about this issue, as there's much work ahead. If you haven't already, visit http://CellPhoneHorrorStory.ca to show your support for a fairer cell phone market, and to share your experience.

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