CRTC urged to prohibit discount removal

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GATINEAU, Que. – The national broadcast regulator should ban TV providers from removing bundling discounts from customers who opt for mandated, cut-rate, basic TV service, consumer groups told hearings Thursday.

The call came as both the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission revealed they had been “threatened” by at least two service providers over information posted online that was designed to aid consumers in finding better TV services.

Removing bundling discounts amounts to discrimination and runs contrary to the intent of new rules designed to provide consumers with greater choice and flexibility in buying TV services, said PIAC executive director John Lawford, who also represented the Consumers’ Association of Canada at the hearings.

“We believe practices such as the removing of the availability of bundling discounts and of certain services, including video-on-demand and free previews, subject certain basic service subscribers to an undue disadvantage, which is not justified,” Lawford told the CRTC.

“These practices deter customers from switching or subscribing to the skinny basic.”

As Lawford was testifying Thursday, CRTC chairman Jean Pierre Blais questioned why PIAC had removed a page from its website which had offered consumers comparisons of cable and satellite TV services.

“We were threatened with . . . not a lawsuit. It didn’t get that far,” Lawford told the panel, as he described letters and emails PIAC received about its website content.

Blais responded that the CRTC had received similar letters and suggested that he would welcome legal action over the regulator’s online consumer tools.

“If they want to sue us, make my day,” he said.

The CRTC hearings examined the rollout of so-called skinny basic TV services after the commission received hundreds of consumer complaints about how the TV providers were offering the $25 basic packages that were mandated effective Mar. 1.

PIAC legal counsel Alysia Lau argued that cable and satellite companies can’t be counted on to unilaterally change their marketing practices and that the regulator should act to remove restrictions some of the TV providers imposed on customers who wanted to switch from more expensive channel packages.

“The (CRTC) should impose rules that would protect consumer choice,” she said.

But Blais questioned why the regulator should force service providers to offer across-the-board discounts, likening the TV pricing models to the those offered by the major airlines.

The difference, Lawford said, was that airlines charge more when they provide more services, while the TV providers were removing discounts from customers simply because they wanted to pay less for essentially the same service for which they were paying higher rates.

The big four service providers — Bell, Shaw, Rogers and Videotron — told the hearings they have learned lessons from the rollout and are adapting their marketing practices in response.

“For us, the launch of starter and theme packs in March was only the beginning,” said Rogers vice president Pam Dinsmore.

“With the offering of full pick-and-pay by Dec. 1, and the rollout of our new IPTV platform, we will be making a range of TV services and packaging options available that will meet the needs of almost every household we serve.”

Consumers also complained that some carriers, including Bell Canada, require customers to buy other services such as Internet, in order to gain access to their mandated smaller TV services.

Just hours before the hearings were launched Wednesday, Bell announced it would offer its smallest TV package as a “stand alone” service by early in the new year.

Lawford welcomed the announcement, but questioned the timing and credited consumer pressure for the move.