Amid skepticism, CRTC opens hearings on $25 basic TV packages

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Major cable companies are in the hot seat today as they answer questions at a CRTC hearing in Gatineau, Que., on their $25 skinny basic TV packages.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission says it’s holding the two-day session in part because of numerous complaints about how TV providers are offering the packages mandated by the federal broadcast regulator.

“Some Canadians have told us clearly that they are not satisfied with the way the new choices have been implemented,” CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said at the start of the hearings Wednesday morning.

A big customer beef is that many cable companies tacked on extra fees and excluded routine discounts, making the new basic plans unappealing to customers.

But critics wonder just how much can be achieved from two days of discussion.

Just talk?

“I’m not confident it will bring any changes,” says Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers’ Association of Canada. His organization will be represented at the hearings.

The CRTC has said that cable companies could face trouble renewing their broadcast licences if their basic TV plans fail to meet expectations.

But in a briefing for media, the commission emphasized that its aim is not to lay down a heavy hand but instead to have a “frank discussion” with TV providers.

The hearings are meant to ensure providers are offering the new options “in a manner that is consistent with its regulations and the spirit of its policy,” said CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao in an email to CBC News.

Cran believes the CRTC regulations are a big part of the problem. He suggests a better option would be for the commission to overhaul the rules so the basic packages include stricter guidelines about how they’re offered and pricing.

“It’s almost like the [TV] service providers are not acting in good faith. But then it’s very hard to make a judgment like that when there were no specifics given” by the CRTC, he says, about the mandated TV plans.

Brian Putman CRTC $25 basic tv remote watching

The CRTC has received hundreds of complaints about the new basic TV packages offered by cable companies. (Brian Putman)

Krystyna Szafran got the skinny basic TV plan but is dissatisfied with the package and says she’ll likely drop it. She, too, wonders why the CRTC doesn’t just take immediate action instead of holding hearings.

“You know that people are complaining, you know that people are unhappy,” says the Bath, Ont., resident. “Don’t give us this lip service, actually do something that’s worth it.”

Rules with holes?

In response, the CRTC says that it generally does not regulate rates for services like cable. Yet it did mandate that cable companies offer a basic TV package for $25 or less by March 1 of this year. The price excluded necessary equipment.

TV providers also had to let customers top up the plan with individual pick-and-pay or small channel bundles. Come December, both options must be offered.

The basic package deals were billed by the CRTC as a way to “maximize choice and affordability,” but so far Canadians haven’t exactly embraced them.

According to the commission, 1.57 per cent of Canada’s TV subscribers have signed up, well below the anticipated uptake of at least five per cent.

“I think some of the practices that we’ve seen show that the providers are trying to make them as unattractive as possible,” says Alysia Lau, legal counsel with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

The centre will be speaking at the hearings and plans to address what it calls “unfair practices” by cable companies when offering the supposedly cheaper plans.

GFX WEB SMALL BASIC PACKAGE COMPARISON V3

Prices provided to the CRTC by the service providers as of May 5, 2016. Prices may have changed since. (CBC)

Bell and Rogers require that basic customers rent TV boxes and exclude them from discounted bundle deals.

Rogers says it looks forward to testifying at the hearing and that its basic offerings “are great options for customers on a budget.”

Bell also demands that basic Fibe TV customers in Quebec and Ontario get the company’s internet, which costs $65 a month in Ontario.

In its submission to the CRTC, the company says key features of its TV service wouldn’t work without Bell internet.

But in Atlantic Canada, Bell basic TV customers don’t have to subscribe to its internet. Bell says the technology in that region is different.

No discounts

Shaw customer Szafran says she’s unhappy with her basic TV package because she received a $3-a-month discount and then lost it.

She says a Shaw service rep explained to her that an error had been made and that its basic TV customers don’t get added deals.

“I get a lousy $3 a month discount, which most people would laugh at, only to have that taken away from me,” says Szafran. “Now that’s quite pathetic.”

Shaw told CBC News that it regretted the inconvenience caused to Szafran and that thousands of Shaw customers currently enjoy its basic TV plan.

Certainly there are Canadians satisfied with the new TV package. But there are many others who feel it’s not a great deal and were expecting much more.

Lau hopes that the hearings will send a strong message to TV providers that “they shouldn’t try to take advantage of CRTC rules designed to benefit consumers.”

But without iron-clad regulations on how the basic package is offered, Cran says he’s not holding out much hope.

“Anything we get of a valuable nature will be very gratefully received, but we’re not hanging by our fingernails, waiting.”

Canadians can also offer up their opinions on the CRTC’s Facebook site during the hearings.

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Amid skepticism, CRTC opens hearings on $25 basic TV packages

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