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Telecoms reach paper bill fee exemption plan but CRTC says it's not good enough

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GATINEAU, Que. - Canada's big telecom companies have agreed to exempt some, but not all, of their customers from fees they charge for producing and mailing invoices.

But regulators say the agreement doesn't go far enough, and are calling for another round of public consultations on the so-called "pay-to-pay" policies.

Executives from nearly a dozen companies, including giants Bell, Rogers and Telus, met behind closed doors in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday at the invitation of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The CRTC had urged participants prior to the meeting to make firm decisions about the fees they charge, with an eye toward eliminating them altogether.

What the regulator got was a commitment from telecom company executives to exempt seniors, people with disabilities, military veterans and people with no Internet connections from paying the fees.

Companies that currently charge for paper bills agreed to adopt the exemptions — if they haven't already — effective January 1, 2015.

The CRTC’s vice-chairs of broadcasting and telecommunications issued a statement after the all-day meeting, saying they had hoped for more.

"The vice-chairpersons are of the view that while this agreement addresses the concerns of some Canadians, it does not go far enough to meet the concerns of all Canadians," the regulator said in a statement.

"They have recommended to their fellow commissioners that the CRTC reinitiate a public process to seek the views of Canadians."

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais added in a statement that "many Canadians who will not benefit from the exemptions will be disappointed with the outcome so far."

The meeting, scheduled two weeks prior, came one day after a new report estimated that Canadians pay up to $734 million every year in fees simply to receive their monthly bills on paper.

The report from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre recommended getting rid of the fees — something the Harper Conservatives have said they want to see.

"Our government will end 'pay to pay' policies, so customers won't pay extra to receive paper bills," the Tories promised in their October 2013 throne speech, a pledge that was repeated in the 2014 budget.

But at least one company taking part in Thursday's meeting said the fees are both fair and environmentally friendly.

Telus said a small minority of its customers who have Internet access pay a $2 fee to get their bills through the mail, rather than electronically. The company said it uses the money to offset the cost of printing and mailing.

Customers without Internet access or who are visually impaired are not charged, Telus noted.

Not all companies charge the fees.

Cogeco, which supplies cable, Internet and phone services in Ontario and Quebec, has never adopted the practice, although it does encourage customers to go paperless.

"This is a decision that we took a while ago, not to charge any type of fee for paper invoices," said Cogeco spokesman Rene Guimond.

"This is not in line with the customer experience that we wish to have with our customers, so we don't charge."

Blais commended Cogeco, along with MTS Allstream, SaskTel and Shaw Communications, for not charging for paper invoices.

Other companies, however, charge for paper bills — up to $6 per month in some cases — and both the fees and exemption policies vary widely.

Rogers, for instance, has been known to waive its $2 fee if customers object for various reasons.

"We think online billing gives customers many advantages over paper bills, like additional tools and resources to help them manage their bill and accounts online, but we recognize online billing is not for everyone," said Rogers spokeswoman Patricia Trott.

"Our policy is to make exceptions to our paper bill fee for customers who don’t have access to the Internet, seniors and people with disabilities."

Rogers used to direct the money it collected from the fees to supporting youth and basic skills education programs as part of the Rogers Youth Fund.

However, it no longer does that, citing dwindling returns from pay-to-pay fees as more customers switch to online billing, and a need to provide the youth fund with a stable source of revenue.

The advocacy centre recommends that the companies should offer discounts to customers who choose to receive invoices electronically, instead of charging fees.

That call was echoed Thursday by the federal Opposition New Democrats, who called the fees a "cash grab."

NDP multiculturalism critic Andrew Cash, who has been fighting the fees for years, dismissed the environmental argument.

"If it's costing them so much money to send out a bill, then they should be passing on those savings (from electronic billing) to their customers, which they haven't done," said Cash.

"These fees unfairly target some of our more vulnerable communities in Canada," he said, pointing to seniors and other people on fixed incomes who may not have easy access to the Internet.

Electronic billing has been widely available since 2001, but banking and communications services companies only started charging for paper bills in 2010.

Many banks and other financial institutions, feeling pressured by the government, have already eliminated their paper bill fees.

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