Prentice all bark and no bite on text message issue, critics say

Those who held out hope that Industry Minister Jim Prentice would somehow prevail on Bell and Telus not to charge cell phone customers for incoming text messages are sorely disappointed.

Critics say Prentice’s earlier strong talk on the issue was all show and no substance.

Bell’s new policy of charging users 15 cents for every incoming text message went into effect Aug. 8, and Telus customers will start paying the fee Aug. 24.

The CEOs of both telecom firms met with Prentice Aug. 8 to explain the new charge. At the time, the minister described the move as “a poorly thought-out decision.”

But after the meeting, the Industry Minister said he was satisfied by the companies’ assurance that customers wouldn’t be charged for receiving spam, and added he would not interfere with Bell and Telus’ plans.

Both companies say they will offer refunds if a customer complains about receiving spam.

“Companies assured the Minister that consumers would be able to report unsolicited text messages to their service provider,” says Christiane Fox, an Industry Canada spokesperson. “In the current deregulated telecommunications market, the federal government has no intention of interfering with the day-to-day business decisions of private companies.”

Specifics on how charges would be refunded to customers were not raised at the meeting, she adds.

Telus customers can simply forward their spam to 7726 with the word “SPAM” in the body of the message to receive a refund for receiving the message. Their accounts will be credited for 15 cents “with no questions asked,” says Shawn Hall, spokesperson for Telus.

“Though we will certainly be watching for extreme cases, where someone is sending us more in refunds than they are getting in text messages.”   

Sending the text message request to Telus will be free of charge, Hall adds. Telus actively blocks spammers from sending out messages over its network.

Bell also blocks out millions of spam messages a month, says Jason Laszlo, spokesperson for Bell. That makes the odds of receiving one very low. But if it does happen, “clients should contact us (e-mail or phone) to have the charges reversed.”

But that’s not good enough, according to New Democrat leader Jack Layton.

“It treats consumers as if their time has no value,” he told ITBusiness.ca. “Putting the onus on the consumer is wrong. It’s like the post office asking for a second stamp to be put on every letter delivered to your house.”

An NDP petition blasting the new charges from Bell and Telus as a “cash grab” has attracted about 30,000 signatures. A supporting Facebook group is even larger, showing the frustration customers feel over the issue.

“We’ve never had such a response as we have on this petition,” Layton says. “It’s an enormous response. I think these companies have become so large, they feel they can just steamroll over customers.”

The fact that the Conservative minority government has no plans to intervene should come as no surprise, according to Steve Lawson, vice-president with Mount Albert, Ont.-based Fox Group Consulting. The party typically avoids tampering with any private business affairs.

“[Prentice’s] latest announcement that he wants to voice his concern is pretty accurate, because that’s all he can do,” Lawson says. “It sounds like he’s been told to backpedal. The government is trying to get their fingers out of the works of the telecom industry.”

Most Bell and Telus customers won’t have to pay for incoming text messages – customers who already have text bundles with their plan won’t be affected. But the idea that a telecom company can still change the terms of a contract at its whim is worrisome, the consultant says.

“No matter how much advance time they give you, they should wait until a contract is renewable before they make that kind of change.”

While Prentice moves away from regulation in the telecom industry, things are shaping up differently across the Atlantic. The European Union is preparing to place a cap on text message roaming fees in October, after waiting for the industry to voluntarily lower fees.

Sending text messages while abroad in Europe could cost up to 10 times the regular amount, according to a statement on the Web site of EU Telecoms Commissioner Viviane Reding. That left most Europeans paying an average of $0.46 per message when traveling.

“Calls on the industry for self-regulation and voluntary reduction of roaming prices for text messages have not been answered,” Reding says. “EU citizens should be free to text across borders without being ripped off.”

The price cap is expected to be under 25 cents per message. The decision comes after a study by Danish regulator National IT and Telecom Agency determined a cost for carriers of 13 cents per message.

The EU approach is a good one, Layton says. The NDP plans to bring forward a bill in the House of Commons to protect customers from being exploited by telecom companies.  

“You need governments to step in when corporations don’t know where the boundaries of decency are,” the NDP leader says. “Why should someone pay for something they never even asked for?”

Meanwhile, Prentice does have a recommendation for Bell and Telus customers unhappy with the change in service: just switch to a carrier that offers free in-coming text messages, he says in a release on the Industry Canada Web site.

“The telecommunications market in Canada is dynamic,” he says. “Choice is available.”

The recent wireless spectrum auction held by the government will also ensure more competition, lower prices and better services for consumers, Prentice adds.

Share on LinkedIn Comment on this article Share with Google+