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Politicians failing to address cellphone cost discontent in Canada

70% of the province’s mobile phone users said their plan is “very expensive” or “moderately expensive,” poll finds.
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The federal and provincial governments have promised relief for high cellphone bills – but have yet to deliver.

In late 2019, Research Co. and Glacier Media asked British Columbians about their mobile phones. At the time, there was a patent sense of dismay at the high cost of service, coupled with a tempered expectation that the federal and provincial governments would make things better.

Almost two years later, British Columbians have experienced two political campaigns. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a large component of the workforce to labour from home, putting an additional strain on cellphone services as offices had no choice but to leave their landlines unattended. The situation presented an ideal opportunity for governments to help residents with the cost of their cellphone plans.

Alas, the status quo prevails, and British Columbians are not amused. When we re-asked these questions earlier this month, 70% of the province’s mobile phone users said their plan is “very expensive” or “moderately expensive,” unchanged since late 2019. Only 29% argue that what they are paying to stay connected through their wireless device can be described as “moderately cheap” or “very cheap.”

The Liberal Party of Canada had vowed to lower the cost of connectivity in the 2019 campaign, even setting the target of a 25% reduction across the board by 2023. This proposal looks great on paper and would mean that the monthly bill for most Canadians would be similar to what Americans are paying.

In late 2019, just a few weeks after the election that returned the Liberals to power with a minority mandate, only 31% of British Columbians expected the federal government to achieve this promise. This month, the proportion of “believers” in a Canada where mobile phone rates are more attainable fell to just 25%. This means that three in five of the province’s residents (61%) do not expect the Liberals to do what they said they would.

This year’s federal campaign has been dominated, understandably, by themes such as health care, the economy and housing. Still, mobile phone costs can become a wedge issue.

The Liberals were very cautious not to re-promise what they stated in 2019. The party’s platform this year includes a mention of expanding access to high-speed internet, but falls well short of revisiting the pledge to reduce costs for the average family.

You can find the Liberals’ 2019 promise in the 2021 platform of the federal New Democratic Party (NDP). The proposal was introduced in late August, touting savings of $1,000 a year for Canadian families. The NDP’s plan would entail working with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to compel firms to cap their fees at a level that resembles what is experienced in other countries. The promise allows the New Democrats to appeal to their base – assisting families affected by affordability setbacks – but any significant change would require a regulatory framework that goes beyond “working with” the people who set the rules.

In early September, the Conservative Party of Canada announced a policy that contemplated, among other things, allowing international telecommunications companies to provide services to Canadians under the principle of reciprocity. This may be appealing for consumers at first, especially those who are able to watch American television networks and are exposed to advertisements that show just how inexpensive cellphone plans can be south of the border.

The problem with the Conservative plan, however, lies in the reciprocity aspect. A successful expansion by Rogers, Bell or Telus into the United States would take years, and so would the possibility of Canadians having a mobile plan with T-Mobile or Verizon. Still, if voters are exposed to just the first part of the promise – the notion of a more open, North American market – they could look at the Conservatives with some hope.

We should not forget the provincial government also promised action, appointing MLA Bob D’Eith to work with the federal government to explore more affordable and transparent mobile phone options. Only 32% of British Columbians think this effort will yield success, down three points since 2019.

It is perfectly reasonable to be cynical when looking at the way political parties of all stripes have performed on this file. The party in power shelved its commitment, which has since been modified by the third party. The main feature of the official Opposition’s plan will take years to be implemented. Regardless of who assembles the next federal government, the disillusion of British Columbians with the cost of mobile phone services remains inescapable. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted on September 5 and September 6 among 800 adults in British Columbia. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region in Canada. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.