Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE) wants to be “recognized by customers as Canada’s leading communications company.” And to get there, the organization spells out a definitive strategy, where improving customer service and spurring wireless growth top the list. Unfortunately, for Bell’s Mobility customers, who must pay for spam sent to their wireless accounts, progress is debatable but overdue.
Since 2004, spam has been defined by the Anti-Spam Action Plan for Canada as ‘unsolicited commercial e-mail.’ Wikipedia offers a broader definition, stating that spam is the “abuse of electronic messaging systems (including most broadcast media, digital delivery systems) to send unsolicited bulk messages indiscriminately.” It notes that while e-mail spam is recognized, (comprising 80 to 85 per cent of all emails) other media such as online newsgroups, blogs, social networks and mobile phone messaging systems experience spam also.
In the Spam Task Force’s May 2005 report, spam was found to be extremely costly for consumers and businesses in terms of privacy, time and money. These problems are likely to appear wherever networks allow for such messaging, and so the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recognized spam as an international problem.
In light of all this, I was happy that aside from Bell itself sending me unsolicited messages, spam had not invaded my wireless device until this year. The Bell messages indicated they were free, so I just ignored them; however, phishing e-mails sent to this device are in my opinion more dangerous, never mind being costly and unsolicited, so I sent a note to Bell indicating the problem, aware that their competitor, Telus, readily addresses spam issues, according to my friend who works there.
Unfortunately, the response from Bell customer service is as follows:
“Upon full review of your email, I am sorry to hear that you received an unwanted text message. As per our guidelines, if you do not have any Text Messaging bundles on your account, all incoming text messages received will be billed at rate of $0.15 per message. Furthermore, we have no way of determining which messages are welcome and which ones are not, we bill you for each text message sent/received, as per our service guidelines. Consequently, all charges are valid and cannot be reversed.”
Imagine my surprise when I later discovered a CBC article stating that both Bell and Telus had confirmed to then Industry Minister, Jim Prentice that consumers who advised their carriers of spam would have their bills adjusted to remove charges for such messages.
Prentice was criticized as an opportunist for latching on to the new 15 cent charge to receive text messages when it was introduced first by Bell and Telus in August 2008. Michael Geist, writing for the Toronto Star, suggested that Prentice was using the uproar to distance himself from bad press about the copyright reform bill, while ignoring the real issues of unfair long-term contracts by wireless companies that “unilaterally change key provisions;” charging customers for spam and Canada’s lack of anti-spam legislation; and limited wireless competition.
Still, at the time, the word of the carriers was enough to prevent legislation, which businesses tend to dislike. Unfortunately for consumers, Bell apparently misunderstood the agreement, for how else could its representatives tell me I must pay for spam because I do not have a texting bundle with them.
Bell wasn’t entirely unforthcoming though. Subsequent messages to the company revealed that by texting the word “stop,” I can stop receiving its unsolicited text messages. That message wouldn’t cost me — I asked. In addition, it is possible to cancel the text messaging service all together, which I’ve done, but which shouldn’t bother a company that fails to see spam as an issue.
My friends and family can no longer use this method of contacting me, but I decided that there are other means of communicating, primarily voice which most wireless users prefer anyway. So now I belong to the 56 per cent of Canadian wireless users who don’t fully utilize text-messaging.
In fact, a Harris/Decima (November 2008) study commissioned by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) showed that cell phones are outranked in importance by computers and internet access. Presumably computers — especially with internet access — offer more versatile methods of communication; so it seems unwise for wireless service providers to aggravate their wireless customers as they have over the past few years.
I don’t know how many people have cancelled their wireless services over the changing fees for texting, but on blogs and in response to online articles numerous people stated their intention to do so; therefore, it seems goodwill has been jeopardized by poor customer service and pricing policies.
Interestingly, unlike Bell, both Telus and Rogers promote their attempts to use technology to combat spam. Each allows users to text the short code 7726 to indicate spam text and will reverse charges for spam. Unfortunately, other pricing policy issues remain, for while both Rogers and Telus indicate that incoming text charges are higher in the United States and have been in existence prior to the Canadian carriers adopting that practice, none mention the fact that Canadians were already being gouged for wireless service.
Canadian wireless customers pay what is widely reported to be the highest average price for wireless service in the world. Bell Canada in its 2008 annual report stated its average revenue per user (ARPU) for post-paid service as $66.09 and pre-paid as $65.88, yet somehow these revenues do not translate into fair customer service action on spam, so apparently, words and handshakes alone won’t do; legislation is necessary.
Anti-spam legislation doesn’t exist in Canada though. This is despite the Conservative government’s April 24, 2009 introduction of Bill C-27, the Electronic Commerce Protection Act (ECPA) to deal with unsolicited and potentially harmful emails and cell phone text messages. That Bill died after second reading because Parliament was prorogued. It can be revived if the Conservatives decide to and if the opposition parties agree to start it again from scratch when Parliament resumes. Similar legislation, specifically Bill S-220, was being reviewed by the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications. Earlier attempts include Bills S-235 and S-202, but so far none have made it into law. Consequently, Canada continues to lag behind Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union countries which have robust spam legislation, according to Assistant Deputy Minister SITT, Industry Canada, Helen McDonald, in her report to the Senate committee on Bills C-27 and S-220.
All of this shows that without adequate pressure Canada will have no anti-spam legislation and spam that rarely affected wireless users years ago will cost them one way or another — now or in the future — because it is a growing problem. And as the problem grows there will be a greater impetus to act. But hopefully Bell will choose to act soon, to be in line with its earlier commitments and improve customer service for its customers, while freeing up its own network resources to meet its goals.