B.C. stokes public outrage on cellphone bills, but must defer to Ottawa

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Premier John Horgan has appointed MLA Bob D’Eith as a new federal lead to convince Ottawa to lower cellphone price rates.


Fotolia / Vancouver Sun

VICTORIA — B.C.’s New Democrat government continues to stoke public outrage over expensive cellphone bills, appointing a point person on the issue while admitting that Ottawa, not the province, controls action on mobile phone companies.

Premier John Horgan named backbench Maple Ridge—Mission MLA Bob D’Eith as “the federal lead on telecommunications” with a mandate to lobby Ottawa’s minority parliament and remind federal parties to follow through with various election promises to reduce prices on cellphone plans.

“What the premier has asked me to do is reach out to our current counterparts in the federal government and say, ‘You promised you’d promised to do something about this. I’m going to hold you to task on that,’” said D’Eith. “That’s action right there.”

B.C. promised in its February throne speech that “your government will give consumers the tools they need to get the least expensive possible service and encourage the federal government to deliver more affordable cellphone options for people” while noting that rising bills are making life less affordable for many consumers.

“Ministry staff is going to undertake a legislative review of B.C. consumer protection laws to see what can be done on a provincial level,” D’Eith said on Tuesday.

When asked why that work wasn’t started nine months ago, after being promised in the throne speech, D’Eith said the government first wanted to conduct public consultation.

“We like to listen before we take action,” he said.

Only six per cent of respondents agreed that the cost of their cellphone service is reasonable, and nine per cent agreed they get good value, according to an online survey of 15,549 British Columbians released Tuesday.

Roughly one-third of people surveyed said they found their cellphone bills hard to understand, and two-thirds said they’ve had to dispute an issue with their contract or bill.

“Now we have over 15,000 people who’ve told us what they’re feeling — they’re feeling gouged, they’re feeling they want us to act,” said D’Eith.

The amount of respondents to the consultation pales in comparison to the 223,000 people who completed a government survey on daylight-saving time earlier this year.

Experts have consistently said that cellphone companies are federally regulated and provinces have little authority to act.

“It’s a federal issue, the Parliament of Canada is the one with responsibility for telecommunications policy, and I don’t see any immediate provincial jurisdiction around cellphone rates,” said Cristie Ford, professor, associate dean and regulation scholar at UBC’s Allard School of Law. “I don’t see how the provincial government gets jurisdiction into the problem.”

Provincial consumer protection authority would usually only come into play if there’s evidence telecommunications companies are gouging people, unfairly manipulating markets or fixing prices, said Ford. Cellphone prices are approved by the CRTC, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Committee.

“It would be hard for B.C. to suggest that rates that have been accepted by the CRTC were contrary to consumer protection,” said Ford.

But B.C. could also try to get “creative” by forcing companies to disclose additional information about pricing and trigger a public reaction that could pressure companies to change their behaviour, said Ford.

D’Eith said some initial ideas include helping educate customers about the federal agency for cellphone complaints, as well as ensuring they get copies of contracts.

rshaw@postmedia.com

twitter.com/robshaw_vansun





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