CRTC, consumer advocates to keep eye on new cable rules taking effect Thursday

TORONTO – The CRTC and consumer advocates say they’re keeping a close eye on the country’s TV providers as the final phase of new basic cable packages rules are implemented on Thursday.

After a first set of regulations were introduced earlier this year, some of Canada’s largest cable companies faced accusations of finding loopholes to ensure customers either remained on more expensive TV packages or paid more for starter cable services through added fees or eliminated discounts.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and OpenMedia say they want to see the rules, meant to give viewers more choice and affordable options, embraced instead.

“The big concern is … that the telcos are going to attempt to skirt the spirit of the law and price Canadians out of these channels in another attempt to keep them trapped in expensive bundles,” said OpenMedia spokeswoman Meghan Sali.

In March, the CRTC required all TV service providers to offer basic cable packages, also referred to as skinny cable, for no more than $25 monthly. Consumers also had to be given the choice to either add channels to their subscriptions a la carte or through prepackaged bundles of no more than 10 channels.

Starting Thursday, TV service providers must offer both options.

The implementation so far has been “mixed,” said Scott Hutton, executive director of broadcasting for the CRTC, which heard from hundreds of frustrated Canadians earlier this year.

Some TV providers, for example, would only sell the new, cheaper packages in tandem with Internet services, said Hutton, or deny bundling discounts to skinny cable subscribers.

Canadians also complained about hidden fees, difficulty navigating the new options and lacklustre channel lineup in the basic cable packages.

Sali said she wasn’t surprised by such tactics as a lack of competition in the industry allows the major telecommunications firms to charge high prices. The companies only modified their anti-consumer behaviour at the CRTC’s aggressive behest, she said.

Some companies changed their conduct, “which will hopefully make the deployment of the next phase that much more successful,” Hutton said.

The CRTC has taken several steps to ensure that’s the case.

Last week, the broadcast regulator announced a number of suggestions in an effort to help the industry act in the best interest of consumers, including giving customers information about the new choices and keeping offers simple.

They came with a thinly veiled threat — the regulator also announced it renewed the licences of most providers for just one year, rather than the usual seven.

“We can have this conversation again next year if they don’t live up to the best practices,” Hutton said.

For their part, all of the companies contacted by The Canadian Press — VMedia, Cogeco, Shaw, SaskTel, Telus, Bell and Rogers — say they’re either already compliant with the new regulations or on track to do so as they expand their offerings to suit or exceed requirements. Videotron and MTS did not respond to requests for comment.

VMedia, Rogers and SaskTel also defended their adherence to the CRTC’s best practices suggestions.

George Burger, a spokesman for VMedia, said the company is focused on transparency, allows customers to easily add or remove additional channels and packages online, and has no contracts or cancellation fees.

Rogers spokesman Andrew Garas said the company already exceeds best practices in most areas.

SaskTel spokesman Greg Jacobs said the company prioritizes giving customers a “rich and customizable experience,” by offering, for example, low equipment costs.

The fees for individual channels and small packages set by the cable providers will determine whether they’re attempting to improve affordability for Canadians, Sali said.

Hopefully, the firms will realize there’s not a lot of wiggle room for interpretation in what the CRTC is demanding, she said.

“But I don’t think it’s going to be something that they’ll … choose to do without that really strong enforcement by the CRTC.”

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