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March 10, 2015
By Celia Sankar
Today the Federal Government refused to stand with us prepaid wireless consumers in our battle with big telecom companies that seize millions of dollars from us on so-called “expiry dates”.
As you would recall, the DiversityCanada Foundation (of which I am the executive director) had asked the federal agency that supervises phone companies to ban Bell, Rogers, Telus and others from applying expiry dates to prepaid wireless account balances.
That agency, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) did the opposite; it actually gave its blessings to this practice in June 2013.
DiversityCanada then joined forces with the National Pensioners Federation (NPF) to ask the CRTC to review that decision. The CRTC again denied our request.
DiversityCanada and NPF then took the matter to the next level. We submitted a petition to the Governor in Council.
The “Governor in Council” is the official name given to the Prime Minister and Cabinet in their role as advisers to the Governor General.
We submitted over 100 pages of background information, evidence and legal arguments to get across the point that the CRTC made an error when it refused to ban expiry dates.
The petition pointed out, among other things, that the CRTC wrongly concluded that when you, as a prepaid wireless consumer, hand over, say, $15 for a prepaid wireless card, what you are doing is buying 30 days of access to the wireless network.
However, our petition presented the Prime Minister and Cabinet with examples of prepaid wireless cards and other promotional material in which the phone companies, themselves, state clearly that when you acquire prepaid wireless cards, what you are actually doing is “adding funds” or “depositing funds” into your account.
We told the Federal Government that funds deposited into consumer accounts to enable consumers to make future purchases of wireless services or goods (such as voice calls, text messages, games, apps, etc) were cash equivalents.
In asking the Government to stand with us as consumers, our message was simple: Cash does not expire and neither should the cash equivalent in consumers' prepaid wireless accounts.
We pointed out that there are some 3.7 million prepaid wireless consumers, who include pensioners, youth, minimum-wage workers, the unemployed and newcomers to Canada. We made the Government aware that wealthy, powerful telecom companies were therefore taking an estimated $372 million from some of the most vulnerable Canadians every year.
The petition called on the Governor in Council to overturn the CRTC decision and send it back to that agency for reconsideration. Alternatively, the petition requested that the Federal Government take matters into its own hands by enacting legislation to protect prepaid wireless consumers.
In the decision posted online, today, the Governor in Council refused to do anything whatsoever to reverse the CRTC's original decision. (And, of course, today's decision made no mention about the Federal Government stepping in to protect consumers through legislation.)
Needless to say, this is hugely disappointing.
At present, we are studying our options at this stage of what has been a long and demanding battle with a steep learning curve.
You get a sense of the magnitude of the odds we've come up against when you consider that between the time we first raised this issue before the CRTC and today's Governor in Council decision, the phone companies would have taken an estimated $700 million from consumers through seizure of prepaid wireless account balances on those so-called “expiry dates”.
We could not have got this far without our legal counsel before the Governor in Council, Golsa Ghamari, as well as DiversityCanada’s legal counsel before the CRTC, Ray Kindiak. They have given generously of their time and expertise to protect the rights and promote the interests of vulnerable Canadians, and, for my part, I certainly owe them a debt of gratitude.
Along the way, it has been a pleasure and honour to partner with the National Pensioners Federation, particularly NPF's president Herb John. Herb and the NPF are deeply keen to ensure that seniors' rights are respected and to see that when pensioners participate in the Canadian economy as consumers, they get their money's worth. The NPF, therefore, has been a tremendous ally.
And last (but, as they say, “not least”), for me, personally, your support has been invaluable. I gained so much encouragement from you -- simply from your signing the original petition or other campaigns, or your sending a thank-you note, or sometimes sending a joke in your emails.
This effort to get this wrong corrected has brought us together and that's something I'll always cherish. Thank you, for having stood with me in this effort to set this wrong right, and to make Canada a better place.