Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tough rules for telcos unveiled

Tories say bill is just 'an optical illusion'

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The province is dialing up tighter rules for cable TV, Internet and phone promotions through new legislation introduced Thursday.

Consumer Protection Minister Ron Lemieux said the new legislation would expand consumer protection to "distance communication" services including cable and satellite TV, Internet, phone, satellite radio and remote home-alarm systems, or so-called bundling of TV, Internet and phone services. It's in addition to rules enacted in 2012 to protect consumers on excessive cellphone contract cancellation fees.

"We're not telling the consumer what they should buy or what they should not buy," Lemieux said. "We're just saying to the companies out there that are offering these services, 'Be upfront, let the customer know clearly what they're going to be paying for and what they're going to be getting,' and then it's up to the consumer to make the decision."

Lemieux said the new legislation would require advertising for special offers to include the minimal monthly cost after a promotion ends and that one-time installation costs are disclosed up front.

'We're just saying to the companies out there that are offering these services, "Be up front, let the customer know clearly what they're going to be paying for and what they're going to be getting," and then it's up to the consumer to make the decision'

-- Consumer Protection Minister Ron Lemieux

He also said the new rules would prevent companies from charging for services that cannot be accessed by the customer because of damaged or defective equipment, and would end unilateral changes to pricing or services if the change does not benefit the consumer.

The legislation will also allow customers to cancel service contracts before they expire and prohibit unreasonable cancellation fees. It comes after consultation with the public and the industry that began last October. More than 360 people responded.

Gail Anderson, director of the Consumer Protection Office, said companies will also have to disclose the length of a contract's terms, the minimum monthly costs and a description of the services to be provided. Details of one-time use charges and installation fees must also be included and not hidden in fine print.

"There will also be cancellation rights for the consumer," Anderson said. "You'll have a right to cancel a contract at any time."

She added the ability for a company to charge a cancellation fee is included, but it will be limited by law. Under the 2012 law, cellphone contracts cap the fee at $50, plus a pro-rated cost of the cellphone if it was not bought upfront.

Gloria Desorcy of the Consumers Association of Canada said the legislation is needed to further educate Manitobans of their rights when they purchase these services.

"Of course, as consumers we have the responsibility to seek the most accurate information, the most full information that we can, but companies also have a responsibility to provide that information, to make it accessible to us in a format that is easy to understand," she said. "If we don't have full information, it's very difficult to make the choice that is best for ourselves as consumers and our families."

It's expected the legislation will be passed in June before the legislature breaks for the summer and will be in force by as early as the end of the year.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister said the proposed legislation is more a sleight of hand by a government that expanded the provincial sales tax to services like haircut and insurance products two years ago and raised it to eight per cent last year.

"For the government to try the optical illusion with this bill and the previous phone bill, that they're protecting consumers, is just wrong," Pallister said. "These are bills designed for public relations purposes."

Anderson also said it will be enforced two ways: The Consumer Protection Office will monitor advertising and promotional materials and review contracts. The province also plans to do more public awareness of the new rules and respond to any complaints. Compliance can also be meted out under the Consumer Protection Act, including through mediation, administrative fines of $1,000 to $5,000 and court action.

Lemieux said suppliers, in discussions with his office, plan to comply with the law before it takes effect.

"Let's face it," he said. "The companies themselves, they don't want unhappy consumers. They want people to say they really like what they're getting and they like the service."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 A4

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