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Cellphone horror stories ring through consumers' troubles with service providers


Bruno Verner checks out an iPhone at the Apple store on October 6, 2009 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

VANCOUVER - When a Canadian tried to cancel his cellphone contract after his legs were crushed in a freak accident and he lost steady income, he was told "You would have needed to die" to be let off the hook.

When the mother of a grown man with Asperger's Disorder tried to cut the cord on a three-year contract her son had activated, they were forced to pay $3,600, even though he was on disability income and not capable of understanding what he'd signed up for.

"This behaviour needs to come to an end," said the mother responding to a survey issued by a group that lobbies for fast, affordable Internet access and more transparent media policy in Canada.

"(Companies) have no regard for the public or for common decency; their bottom line is all-powerful. Please stop them from doing this to another family."

The anecdotes are but two among a collection of "cellphone horror stories" being put on display by OpenMedia.ca, a non-profit organization that's dialing up the pressure on the federal regulator to incorporate public opinion as it re-writes Canada's wireless code.

OpenMedia's report, released Thursday, found the most frequent complaint among Canadians who participated in its survey was that cellphone users feel they're being forced to accept poor and disrespectful customer service.

Contract holders also say they feel trapped in agreements because they're penalized by excessive termination fees that stick them with lengthy three-year commitments. They also complained of automatic contract renewals and a lack of initial clarity when signing up.

The report, which compiled the opinions of 2,859 participants over the past four months, is being released as broad consultations continue with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunication Commission. The CRTC has drafted a set of national standards for the content and clarity of cellphone contracts that is expected to be released this summer.

OpenMedia.ca is aiming to keep building the momentum that will ensure Canadians' preferences are included in the new rules, just weeks after the conclusion of public hearings on the matter were held in Quebec.

"It's pretty clear that Canadians are being mistreated by cellphone carriers," executive director Steve Anderson said in an interview. "We wanted to ... really highlight that and make that very clear to both the government and the CRTC, both of which can help fix our broken cellphone market."

Another independent organization, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunication Services, has also reported a dramatic jump in the proportion of complaints related to wireless services since 2008, up from 31 per cent to 62 per cent.

The CRTC itself has received angry comments about contracts.

Anderson's group argues the lack of choice in the market is the leading cause for discontent. Nearly 94 per cent of the market is controlled by three large carriers: Rogers (TSX:RCI.B), Bell (TSX:BCE) and Telus (TSX:T).

The report, "Time for an upgrade: demanding choice in Canada's cellphone market," also puts forward a series of recommendations as part of a proposed road map for change that can be used by the CRTC and Industry Canada.

"We think that if you look at what Canadians are actually saying, that's the best way to craft a plan and we don't think policy-makers have done that so far," Anderson said.

"They need to be taking bold measures. It should be a fairly easy decision if they want to listen."

The key recommendations are for more transparency, fair contracts, real choice and reliable and respectful service.

The group also posits Industry Canada can take a lead role in ensuring the wireless spectrum is divvied out fairly to three new service providers.

During the hearings in mid-February, testimony focused on items such as the length of cellphone contracts, locked devices and roaming and cancellation fees.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, which lobbies on behalf of the industry, opposes a forced end to three-year contracts and argues that new rules could, in fact, be blamed for limiting consumers' choice.

A senior executive with Telus also told the hearings it would be difficult to apply any new wireless code to all existing contracts due to legal and practical reasons.

The regulator has suggested telecom companies would need to comply within six months of the code coming into force, but another executive with Rogers urged the rules be rolled out in stages.

OpenMedia.ca found volunteer participants for its survey by reaching out via advertising, social media like Facebook and traditional media.


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