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Canadian Mobile Operators Raking in Fat Coronavirus Profits With Bill Shock

Canadians are opening cell phone bills that have skyrocketed as a result of usage from work-at-home initiatives to stop the spread of COVID-19, a health crisis that is also fattening profits at some of the country’s biggest mobile operators.

Rosette Okala of Pickering, a suburb of Toronto, was stunned to receive her Rogers Mobile bill this month for $540, up from the usual $160 she is used to paying.

“I almost dropped,” Okala told CBC News. She is a pharmaceutical employee whose job requires being online. Her 12-year-old son has been online more too, doing schoolwork.

The part of Pickering where Okala lives does not have wired internet service available, so she relies on internet service from her mobile provider, like hundreds of thousands of other Canadians do. Pickering is hardly a tiny town either. With a population of 92,000, the city is immediately east of Toronto in the Durham Region. Despite that, there are sections of the city still waiting to get wired internet service.

Using the internet in areas considered to be “rural Canada” by providers is not cheap. Rogers offers customers a $145/mo wireless internet plan that includes 100 GB of usage. Customers that exceed that do so at their peril, facing overlimit fees of $5/GB.

“This is just a slap in our face,” said Okala. “We [rural customers] pay huge bills just to be able to do something basic that most people take for granted.”

Okala hoped her employer would help cover her phone bill. Rogers has been reluctant to help, despite a showy ad campaign from the cable and wireless giant promising customers “we are in this together and are here to help.” When it comes to billing matters, talk is cheap and help is hard to find.

Pickering, Ont.

Okala said she spent hours on the phone with a Rogers representative trying to negotiate a lower bill. Rogers eventually offered a paltry $30 credit and a payment plan to pay off her balance. A second attempt resulted in an improved offer of $100 credit, an upgrade to a different service plan, and 50% off monthly service fees for 24 months. But Rogers still wanted to be paid at least $440, at least until the CBC pointed out it would share Okala’s story with the rest of Canada for free. Rogers suddenly offered to take another $230 off Okala’s March bill and give her the mobile hotspot hub she was leasing for free.

John Burbidge, a University of Waterloo economics professor in North Dumfries living in a town of 10,000 near Cambridge, Ont., got schooled in the mobile broadband business by Bell Mobility, which sent him a bill for $650, including nearly $400 in usage charges. Burbidge was confused by an email from Bell, Canada’s largest phone company, which claimed it was waiving overlimit usage fees for customers during the pandemic. He missed the fine print advising that fee waiver only applied to Bell’s DSL and fiber wired customers, not wireless data plans. Burbidge argued it was unfair to exempt some customers from usage fees, while continuing to charge them to others.

“If rural Canadians are expected to work and do school work from home, decent and reasonably priced access to the internet is a basic right. Bell should not be allowed to gouge rural customers,” Burbidge told Canada’s public broadcaster.

Bell told the CBC the company was offering customers an extra 10 GB on customer data allowances and a $10 credit off the cost of using a mobile hotspot connected to Bell’s mobile network. As a courtesy, Bell agreed to credit Burbidge’s account $350 for March and take 60% off overlimit fees in April, but he is on his own after that. Burbidge’s current plan charges $180 a month for up to 100 GB a month, with a $5/GB overlimit fee.

“It’s really sad to hear,” Laura Tribe, executive director of consumer group OpenMedia told the CBC. “Data caps are definitely unnecessary. We see them as a punitive mechanism to make sure that people suppress the amount of data that they use and overpay when they go over what they want.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an industry lobbying group representing the country’s wireless companies, claims data caps are necessary to prevent overwhelming Canada’s wireless networks, which could make calling 911 impossible. But voice calls can travel over different spectrum than data traffic, and no wireless company or the CWTA would admit if their networks were close to being overhwhelmed by traffic as a result of millions of Canadians working from home.

Tribe says the traffic spikes that have come from the coronavirus crisis prove her point. Even with data usage at all-time highs, no provider is claiming their network is close to capacity. That should call into question whether there is any need at all for mobile data caps.

“They’re a way to increase profits and suppress the usage of the networks,” said Tribe.

Rogers Announces “Infinite” Data Plans That Are Finite and Throttle You

Canadians, living under a regime of three national wireless carriers (Bell, Rogers, and Telus) pay some of the highest wireless prices in the world. A new plan announced today from Rogers Communications is unlikely to change that.

“Introducing Rogers Infinite – Unlimited Data plans for Infinite Possibilities,” or so claims Rogers’ website.

Canadians’ initial enthusiasm and excitement for Rogers’ new “unlimited data plans” was quickly tempered by the accompanying fine print that makes it clear the plans may be free of overlimit fees, but very much limit their usability once the data allowance runs out. Customers can pool data with family and friends, but Rogers did not mention exactly how.

Rogers Infinite oddly offers three different price tiers, based on… usage, which is strange for an “unlimited” plan:

  • Infinite +10 offers 10 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $75 a month.
  • Infinite +20 offers 20 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $95 a month.
  • Infinite +50 offers 50 GB of data at traditional 4G LTE speed, bundled with unlimited calling and texting for $125 a month.

Those prices are steep by American standards, but Rogers also incorporates fine print that few carriers south of the border would attempt. First, Mobile Syrup reports included calls and texts must be from a Canadian number to a Canadian number. Extra fees may apply if you contact your friends in America and beyond. The “infinite” runs out when your allowance does. After that, it may take an infinitely long time to use your device because Rogers will throttle upload and download speeds to a maximum of 256 kbps for the rest of the billing cycle. American carriers, in contrast, typically only throttle customers on busy cell towers after exceeding an average of 20-50 GB of usage, although some mandate a throttle based entirely on usage. If customers want more high-speed data, they can purchase a Rogers Speed Pass for $15 and receive an extra 3 GB of high-speed data. In contrast, T-Mobile offers U.S. customers an unlimited line for $60 with no speed throttle until usage exceeds 50 GB a month. That is less than half the cost of Rogers’ Infinite +50 plan for an equal amount of high-speed data.

More fine print:

Rogers Infinite data plans include 10 GB, 20 GB or 50 GB of data at max speed on the Rogers network, extended coverage areas within Canada, and Roam Like Home destinations (see rogers.com/roamlikehome). You will continue to have access to data services with no overage beyond the max speed allotment at a reduced speed of up to 256 kilobits per second (for both upload and download) until the end of your current billing cycle. Applications such as email, web browsing, apps, and audio/video streaming will continue to function at a reduced speed which will likely impact your experience. We will send you a text message notifying you when you have used 90% and 100% of the max speed allotment included in your plan with the option to purchase a Speed Pass to add more max speed data to your plan. In all cases, usage is subject to the Rogers Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy.

Unlocked Phone Rule Sparks Carrier-Alleged Smartphone Crime Spree in Canada

Criminals are supposedly having a field day robbing cell phone stores in Canada after regulators ordered all cell phones to be sold unlocked, allowing customers to bring their devices to other carriers.

“There have been multiple instances of armed robberies at our stores targeting unlocked, new devices,” Bell Canada complained in a letter to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). “We believe this trend is attributable to the availability of unlocked devices [that are] more desirable to fraudsters and thieves.”

Because Canada’s three major carrier-cell phone marketplace is seen as less competitive and more expensive than the United States, the CRTC has tried to keep wireless service costs under control by regulating some of the practices of the barely competitive Canadian market. One such initiative is the ban on charging unlock fees on devices, which carriers used to deter customers from changing providers. As of last December, carriers could no longer collect an average of $50 to unlock each device, and new devices had to be sold to customers in an unlocked state, allowing them to be used on any compatible wireless provider’s network.

Rogers, which runs Canada’s largest cable operator and has a major market share of Canada’s wireless market, claims the unintended consequence of the CRTC’s unlock policy is a 100% increase in cell phone thievery during the last six months the policy has been in effect. Rogers reports thieves are stealing brand new cell phones in the mail or off a customer’s front step after the shipper drops the package off. Brazen armed robberies of cell phone stores have been more common in the United States, but providers claim criminal gangs are now taking their business north of the border, holding up stores and running off with dozens of valuable phones.

Both Bell and Rogers warned the CRTC last year thievery would be the likely result of providing unlocked phones. Consumer groups claim both providers have a vested interest complaining about the new unlock policies. In 2016, Canadian telecom companies made $37.7 million from fees related to unlocking smartphones. That was a 75 percent increase in fee revenue since 2014.

Canadian consumers called unlock charges “ransom fees,” and were particularly upset paying fees after they paid off the device.

“You should be able to unlock it [for free] at the very least once you’ve paid off the device. You own it,” John Lawford, executive director with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa told the CBC.

Lawford calls unlock fees an intended consequence of the industry’s own policies. Cell phone companies sell devices manufacturers have to lock at the behest of carriers, and then consumers face fees paid to the same carriers to undo the lock.

Canada’s providers often point to examples of armed robberies and truck hijacking south of the Canadian border as a reason to be concerned about employee and customer safety. In the view of some, an unlocked smartphone worth more than $500 is an invitation to steal.

Bell told regulators things are certain to get worse in Canada.

“It appears that illegal activity may have shifted from the U.S. to Canada as some [American] carriers have begun to lock devices,” Bell officials told the CRTC.

Bell was referring to Verizon’s unilateral announcement it began relocking smartphones in February, despite its agreement not to as part of an acquisition of 700 MHz spectrum in 2008. That prime spectrum came with strings attached, including a requirement not to disable or restrict devices that use the spectrum, something locked phones do. Verizon previously tested the waters on reintroducing locked cell phones during the second term of the Obama Administration, but the idea met immediate resistance from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler.

In 2018, Verizon found a much more receptive audience from the Republican-dominated FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai, and has gradually returned to locking down devices on Verizon’s network. Last spring, Verizon began locking all smartphones sent to stores, to be unlocked after purchase. Verizon argued this would deter armed gangs from hijacking deliveries or raiding stores to steal phones by the dozens, to be resold to the eager black market.

After meeting little resistance, Verizon announced it would start locking phones for an arbitrary amount of time after purchase, defined in terms of “months, not years.”

If thieves obtain a stolen, locked phone, it cannot generally be activated by the customer unless taken to an authorized retailer. This theoretically leaves thieves stuck with worthless phones, which is why Canadian carriers claim the country’s unlocked phone policy will draw American thieves north. But critics suspect financial motives hold more sway. In addition to charging lucrative fees for unlocking phones, customers unable to take their device with them to a new carrier can effectively deter a provider change, especially for family accounts where multiple devices would need to be moved.

Others claim locking phones is not the best way to deter thieves, because an unscrupulous Verizon employee or reseller can still unlock them for thieves.

The wireless industry already claims to have a voluntary, industry-led initiative to dramatically reduce theft — a national database of stolen/lost phones. Under this system, a would-be customer is denied activation if their device’s unique ID appears on a list of stolen or lost phones.

CBC Calgary reports Canadians no longer face unlock fees on their smartphones and other wireless devices. (3:55)

Competition Drives Internet Prices Down 45% in Toronto This Summer

Fierce competition by eastern Canada’s largest internet service providers are driving down prices across the Greater Toronto Area by as much as 45%.

Bell’s fiber to the home service, making its way across parts of the GTA, is now offering unlimited gigabit (1,000/940 Mbps) internet for $79.95 a month, a major drop from its original price of $149.95, if customers sign up before the end of July. Those signing up by July 7 can also get a $50 gift card.

Rogers, the country’s biggest cable company, has been pushing its own limited time promotional offer for its gigabit (1,000/30 Mbps) package, which is more widely available than Bell’s Fibe but also suffers from anemic upload speed. Rogers was selling the package for $152.99/month, but it’s now $79.99 for the first year. The offer is good throughout Ontario, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

The two telecom companies are trying to boost subscriber numbers during the slow summer months when quarterly financial reports can show a decrease in customers.

Canadians have generally had less access to gigabit speed plans than their American neighbors. Experts believe these companies are cutting prices to hook people on super-fast internet plans that will change consumer attitudes about gigabit speed from an unaffordable luxury into a necessity. Like Americans, Canadians are gravitating towards faster speed plans at an accelerating rate. They also continue to choose unlimited plans wherever available.

There are the usual terms and conditions in the fine print to consider:

Rogers: Offer available for a limited time to new Rogers internet subscribers within Rogers cable service area in Ontario (where technology permits). Subject to change without notice. Data usage subject to Rogers Terms of Service and Acceptable Use Policy. See rogers.com/terms for full details. Taxes extra. One-time activation fee of $14.95 and one-time installation fee (waived for Self-Install; Basic $49.99 or Professional $99.99) apply. Savings as compared to regular price for 12 months. Advertised regular price applies in month 13, subject to any applicable rate increases.

Speeds may vary with internet traffic, server gateway/router, computer (quality, location in the home, software and applications installed), home wiring, home network or other factors. See Acceptable Use Policy at rogers.com/terms. An Ethernet/wired connection and at least one additional wired or wireless connection are required to reach maximum download speeds of up to 1 Gbps for Rogers Ignite Gigabit Internet. Offer available until July 31, 2018 within Rogers cable service area (where technology permits) to new customers subscribing to Ignite Internet 60u or above.

Bell: Offer ends on July 31, 2018. Available to new residential customers in Ontario, where access and technology permit. For certain offers, the customer must select e-billing and create a MyBell profile. Modem rental required; one-time modem rental fee waived for new customers. Subject to change without notice and cannot be combined with any other offer. Taxes extra. Other conditions apply, including minimum system requirements. Subject to compliance with the Bell Terms of service; bell.ca/agreements.. Speeds on the internet may vary with your configuration, internet traffic, server, environmental conditions, simultaneous use of Fibe TV (if applicable) or other factors; bell.ca/speedguide.

$50 gift card promotion: Offer ends on July 7, 2018. The selected internet tier must include unlimited usage. An unloaded gift card will be mailed after the customer maintains a continuous subscription to the same eligible Bell services and has an account in good standing for 60 days following the installation of all services. All services need to be activated by July 31, 2018. Not combinable with any other offers or promotions. Subject to change without notice. One gift card per account. When received, customer must register the gift card online at bellgiftcard.com to request loading of the amount. Allow 30 days for gift card to be loaded and ready to use. If you cancel your services before you activate your gift card, you will not be able to use your gift card. Gift card and use are subject to the card program. Other conditions apply; see bell.ca/fullinstall.

More Rogers Employees Speak Out: “A Calculated Game of Misery” for Customers

Phillip Dampier January 18, 2018 Canada, Consumer News, Rogers Comments Off on More Rogers Employees Speak Out: “A Calculated Game of Misery” for Customers

Rogers Communications’ call center workers treated customers as adversaries and allegedly placed unauthorized charges on customer bills, didn’t disclose service fees, and avoided downgrading or disconnecting service while managers encouraged these practices and lectured workers it was not their job to worry about what customers thought.

Days after CBC News’ Go Public unit revealed stories of customer abuse shared by Rogers’ call center workers, more than two dozen additional current and former workers have now come forward confirming the first report and declaring the company’s call center work environment was uniformly “toxic,” “intense,” “high pressure,” and abusive to employees and customers alike.

“It was a calculated game of misery.” 

Rogers management cares about only one thing, employees claim — making money any way a representative can, even if it means pushing products and services on unsuspecting customers.

A four-year employee at Rogers call center in Brampton, Ont., who left in 2015, still vividly remembers he was trained to trick customers at every turn.

  • He and his colleagues were trained not mention cancellation fees charged by other providers when a customer switched to Rogers.

“Because these fees were not charged by Rogers itself, we were told to gloss over them as quickly, vaguely and incoherently as possible,” he writes. “Often while the customer was speaking at the same time.”

  • Agents were shown how to quietly remove some services from a customer’s account while adding others that counted towards a monthly sales goal, hoping the customer wouldn’t notice.

This trick, he told CBC News, involved secretly reducing certain services — such as the number of television channels a customer received — so an agent could add new services, such as a home phone line they didn’t necessarily need, but that earned points towards monthly sales target.

“It was a calculated game of misery,” he says. “How much could you lower their existing services so they wouldn’t immediately notice, while at the same time adding as much in new services as you could?”

“It’s not your job to care.”

In its original report, CBC News quoted a Rogers spokesperson who denied knowledge of these practices and declared there was no tolerance for employees who mistreated customers. But the latest group of employees to come forward consider the abuses systematic and occurred with the full knowledge of company managers and supervisors.

The former worker in Brampton noted that when he brought concerns to his manager questioning the ethics of some of the business practices he was reminded he worked in sales and was told, “It’s not your job to care.”

Intentionally Frustrating Customers Until They Give Up and Hang Up

If a customer called in to complain about something on their bill, downgrade, or cancel service — all things that could affect sales targets, it was ‘all hands on deck’ among call center workers and their colleagues. In addition to hanging up on customers trying to cancel service, Rogers customer service representatives tricked customers trying to escalate a problem to a manager. Instead of transferring calls to an actual manager, employees were taught to transfer the call to a fellow agent who was prepared to repeat claims there was nothing Rogers could do to resolve the issue.

“The goal,” he says, “was for the customer to be so frustrated, speaking to someone who couldn’t do anything more than you, that they ended the call.”

“The things that go on behind closed doors would leave you speechless.”

Debbie Sears (Image courtesy of: Debbie Sears/CBC)

Making a call to Rogers’ customer service can be risky business for customers, because it gives call center workers access to your account, where they can add services without your knowledge to help make their monthly sales targets.

Nicole McDonnell worked at a third-party call center in London, Ont., contracted with Rogers to provide customer service. She quit three months ago disturbed about what she saw. She told CBC News she witnessed agents making unauthorized changes to customer accounts, such as adding lucrative cellphone activation charges without the knowledge of the customer.

“The things that go on behind closed doors would leave you speechless,” she writes.

Debbie Sears echoed McDonnell. Taking calls from her home office in Kingston, N.S. through a subcontractor, Sears was trained to do one thing above all else: sell.

“We were constantly being threatened that we would be fired if we did not upsell — add a home line or a cellphone to the account,” she says. “It was a pressure cooker. They expected you to sell on every call. And you were told time and again, ‘Never take no for an answer. Push, push, push!'”

Sears said she was trained to push phone protection plans for cellphones for $12 a month, but was told not to mention a replacement fee of up to $200 applied if a customer ever made a claim. Other times, she claims, managers would approve cellphone sales even when a credit check suggested a customer was opening a fraudulent account or had very poor credit.

“I have a hard time selling something that’s useless to them [customers],” says Sears. “I told them right from the start, and they said, ‘Oh well, you’ll get used to it.'”

Apparently not. Sears said she began having panic attacks before her shift would begin and her blood pressure “went through the roof.”

Like other Rogers employees that don’t make their sales targets, she was eventually terminated.

“My doctor was very worried I’d have a stroke,” she says. “When I got laid off [for not selling], they did me a favor.”

Former Rogers Manager: ‘My job was to manage out the low performers — witch-hunt those people. Grown men would be crying.’

One former Rogers manager reached out to Go Public to share how he was trained to put pressure on workers in the Ottawa call center.

The pressure for sales reached a new level of intensity in 2015 when Rogers issued a memo directing senior leadership to light a fire under call center workers to get them to sell more services. At least two-thirds of all call center workers were placed on a “performance improvement plan” that most employees understood was the kiss of death to their employment in the near future. The message was perfectly clear – sell more or risk being terminated.

CBC:

“Every day we’d have a meeting about sales targets,” he says. “A big part of my job was to manage out the low performers. Witch-hunting those people.”

On the other hand, he says, top sellers were protected — even if they behaved unethically.

“Senior leadership would often issue directives to the team managers to protect their top-level performers by turning a blind eye,” he says. “Protect the tops.”

Once an employee found themselves assigned to the “performance improvement plan,” managers knew most would have to go, and they had no patience for anything except a radical turnaround. If the employee still struggled making sales, their future was bleak. The ex-manager told CBC News he would squeeze every minute out of their last day at the company, tapping them on the shoulder five minutes before the end of their shift to put them in a private room, and then fire them.

“Grown men would be crying, desperate because they couldn’t sell enough,” he says. “But sales was everything.”

When it got too much for even him and he began questioning Rogers’ way of doing business, he was fired too.

‘Shocking and appalling’

Vancouver labor lawyer Lia Moody says she’s been following the Rogers employees’ allegations, and finds them “shocking and appalling.”

Moody told the CBC Rogers’ apparent business practices ‘contravenes what Canadians consider their ethics and values.”

“I think it’s important that people are speaking out. Public shaming,” she says, “is the only way a company will make changes.”

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