Competition Bureau calls for simple, standardized internet offers to consumers

TORONTO — Canada’s main competition watchdog recommends that all internet service providers should be required to use a standardized, easy-to-understand format when providing contract quotes to consumers.

The Competition Bureau, which made the recommendation in a filing to Canada’s telecommunications regulator, says consumers need a simple way to compare competing offers from internet providers, also called ISPs.

The bureau also recommends that advertised prices should include all mandatory fees and that the term “unlimited” should mean there are no data caps or slow-downs or other significant restrictions hidden in the contract.

Various sources have said consumers often don’t get what they expect from their ISP, resulting in complaints to the Competition Bureau and other agencies such as the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

Most of the large ISPs said in their filings to the CRTC that they would support providing plain-language summaries after a sale is concluded, as a way to reduce customer frustration over the key terms of their agreements.

However, several — including Bell, Cogeco, Quebecor, Rogers, Shaw, and Telus — say they object to mandatory summaries of their offers until after a sales agreement is finalized.

For example, Calgary-based Shaw Communications Inc. said in its filing to the CRTC that paper or electronic pre-sale summaries would be “severely restrictive, inefficient and administratively burdensome.”

Shaw said such a requirement also disregards that customers typically makes decisions through a series of steps that include more than one inquiry, often through more than one sales channel.

“Since this is a process that unfolds over time, the offers that are available may also fluctuate between the first and subsequent contacts, due to competitive market conditions and technological developments,” Shaw said.

It added that mandatory standardized pre-sale summaries would result in a “one size fits all” type of configuration.

“Such an outcome would be completely antithetical to a dynamic market, one that is highly responsive to consumer needs and wants … Ultimately, therefore, this outcome would be detrimental to consumers,” Shaw argues in its filing.

However, the Competition Bureau’s position is that consumers would benefit from a more simplified way to compare offers while shopping.

“This would promote switching and stimulate competition by eliminating some of the cognitive costs faced by consumers,” the bureau says in its submission.

The CRTC’s proposed internet code of conduct is only one of several initiatives under way following complaints about sales and marketing practices by Canada’s large ISPs as well as contract and billing disputes with customers.

A number of consumer groups — led by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre — have objected to the CRTC’s schedule, saying it should wait until the regulator files a report in February to cabinet on sales tactics used by Canada’s largest service providers.

The CRTC declined PIAC’s request for revised timetable last month. It continues to have an April 8 deadline final proposals, after several rounds of feedback to the initial interventions that had to be filed by Dec. 19.

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