With household telecom bills regularly surpassing $100 a month, it might be easy to gloss over a $2 fee, but Ottawa wants communications companies to change the practice of charging for the privilege of reviewing a paper bill.
In theory, such fees are meant to encourage an ecofriendly switch to electronic records, but many people bristle when they realize they are being charged extra simply to receive their invoice in the mail. Consumer advocates say the "pay to pay" practice can be especially hard on low-income and elderly customers, who often don't have access to a computer or the Internet.
In an effort to nudge the industry into more consumer-friendly practices without resorting to regulation, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission invited 11 communications companies to a day-long meeting at its headquarters in Gatineau, Que., Thursday. The commission hoped to emerge with a predictable, industry-wide approach and, ideally, the elimination of paper bill fees.
But while all the companies committed to providing some exemptions as of January, the two commissioners who hosted the meeting said that didn't go far enough. They recommended the CRTC initiate a public proceeding to seek the input of Canadians.
The paper fee is a practice the federal government also pledged to end in its Speech from the Throne last October and the increasingly consumer-focused CRTC launched a year-long fact-finding exercise on the issue in July, 2013.
Following the CRTC's report on the outcome of the meeting, federal Industry Minister James Moore took to Twitter late Thursday evening and said the government would introduce legislation to end fees for paper bills in the telecom industry. In a statement Friday morning, Mr. Moore reiterated that promise, stating, "We do not believe that Canadians should pay more to receive a paper copy of their telephone or wireless bill."
He did not provide details on when the government planned to table such legislation.
The CRTC recently reported that as of last November, 36 companies said they charged nothing while 27 others charged fees ranging from 99 cents to $5.95. Some companies dangle incentives such as discounts, contest entries or one-time credits to convince subscribers to switch to paperless billing. Some also offer exemptions for certain customers, but the policies vary widely.
All of the companies present Thursday agreed to exemptions for customers with disabilities who need a paper bill, those without Internet service, those 65 and older and members of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Among the biggest industry players, the CRTC says Shaw Communications Inc., Manitoba Telecom Services Inc., Saskatchewan Telecommunications Holding Corp. and Bell Aliant Inc.'s Atlantic Canada operations do not charge for paper bills.
On the other hand, Rogers Communications Inc., Telus Corp. and BCE Inc. (including its affiliate Bell Aliant's operations in Ontario and Quebec) charge $2 a paper bill a month. Rogers and BCE charge that fee for home phone, wireless, Internet and television services, while Telus charges only for wireless and Internet bills.
(BCE owns 15 per cent of The Globe and Mail.)
Quebecor Inc.-owned Vidéotron Ltée has a $3 fee for wireless customers to get a detailed paper bill listing all calls, texts and data used. It does not charge for standard bills.
Toronto startup wireless carrier Wind Mobile, which is operated by Globalive Wireless Management Corp., charges $4 for paper bills. One of Globalive's affiliated companies – OneConnect, a provider of voice-over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone services to businesses – charges the highest fee, $5.95 for paper bills.
In its report, the CRTC noted that the Canadian communications industry is not alone in the practice. The commission said many banks have fees in the range of $2 to $3 for customers to receive statements.
In the press release Friday, Mr. Moore only mentioned the telecommunications industry and did not address whether the government also plans to target fees for paper bank statements.
In a report released this week, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, a consumer group based in Ottawa, used CRTC data as well as some of its own survey information to estimate that if three in 10 Canadians opt for paper bills, they pay a total of $180-million per year for bank statements and between $315-million and $554-million annually for phone, Internet and television bills.
The wide variation in PIAC's estimate for communications services bills is because customers with several products from one company could receive only one bill for their "bundle."
PIAC conducted a telephone survey of 2,005 individuals last year and found that 74 per cent of those polled objected to paying for paper bills while 83 per cent felt the cost of sending a bill in the mail was part of a company's cost of doing business.
Update: This story was updated on Friday morning to include the government's pledge to introduce legislation banning fees for paper bills in the telecom industry.