Ring the changes

By Lindsay Briscoe

In 2006, when I moved to Spain for a year, I was dead set against owning a cell phone. I don’t know if it was the obnoxious ringtones or simply the idea of being available all the time but they bothered me. Spanish friends of mine kept urging me to get one. You’ll need it, they all said. If you plan to make a living teaching English classes, students need a way to get in touch with you when you’re not home. I resisted and resisted but finally gave in.

Crossing over from landline to mobile communication – despite doing so overseas – was surprisingly simple!

I walked into the shop with no prior knowledge of cell phones, managed to understand the ins and outs of purchasing minutes in a foreign language and walked out with a fairly priced, stylish new flip phone (it was 2006) and, best of all, no contract. When I left the country, I simply handed the phone off to the lovely waiter who served me café con leche in the town square every day over the year and walked away without the burden of having to continue paying for something I wouldn’t even be able to use anymore.

After the stint abroad, I moved back to Canada and was slapped with the reality of owning a cell phone back on home soil. The Suffocating contracts, the non-contract deals with outrageous bills attached to them, the salespeople who refuse to speak in lay terms, pamphlets full of fine print mumbo jumbo and an extra charge for everything. Even years later in 2011, when I attended journalism school in Montreal and a smart phone would have been the most useful and practical tool for my studies, I held off on getting one because I didn’t want to get sucked into a three year contract – especially not knowing where my next job would take me. I couldn’t afford to go contract-less because it would have meant purchasing the phone outright on my modest student budget.

With all this is mind, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has finally loosened the reigns on Canadian cellular customers. Its new reforms, announced last week, are certainly going to help create greater competition, lower prices and give customers a little more breathing room – precisely what the cellular industry has lacked all along.

The most significant of the reforms is that, regardless the length of their contract, cellular customers will be free to walk away from contracts after two years. That doesn’t mean three year contracts have been banned but it does mean customers can no longer be dinged with expensive early cancellation fees (just the remaining value of their device) if they decide two years on contract is enough.

Customers are then free to either renegotiate the terms with their current carrier or take their phone and shop around for a better deal elsewhere which should keep companies in check and encourage them to maintain reasonable prices (ehem, does anyone remember Air Canada before West Jet? Just saying)…

The reforms also require carriers to allow phones to be unlocked after 90 days (immediately if the device is purchased outright) and to cap extra data charges at $50 a month and international data roaming charges at $100 a month. CRTC spokespersons actually said they made this decision after hearing way too many stories about cellular customers using their phone somewhere else and coming home to a bill that drained their bank account in one fell swoop.

But the best part is cellular companies are going to be required to tone down the fine print mumbo jumbo I referred to earlier and produce literature that’s easy to read and understand. You shouldn’t need a dictionary to decipher your contract.

The new regulations are set to apply to new contracts signed after December 2, 2013 but many cellular companies like Rogers, Telus and, yes, Tbaytel too, have already started implementing the changes.

It feels like it’s taken forever to get to where Spain (and countless other countries) was in 2006 but at least we’ve taken a step in the right direction.


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