The CRTC said it is already reviewing wireless roaming fees as Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne signalled concerns about companies hiking rates even as phone bills in other jurisdictions are on the decline.
In a letter to CRTC chairwoman and CEO Vicky Eatrides on Thursday, Champagne asked the federal telecommunications regulator to look into rising roaming fees, saying the CRTC plays an important role in promoting affordability and empowering consumers to make informed decisions.
In a letter of response, Eatrides said the CRTC has already started comparing roaming rates of Canadian companies to those of carriers in other countries. She said ancillary fees "have the potential to undermine the work we are doing to lower wireless prices."
"Our preliminary results confirm what many Canadians are feeling — that international roaming rates we pay are higher. We will be commissioning a study to examine this issue in greater detail," Eatrides wrote.
"As the telecommunications regulator, we take seriously attempts to increase Canadians’ bills through ancillary fees. We will continue to use all available tools to address this type of behaviour and will keep Canadians apprised of developments."
Earlier this month, Telus and Bell both raised their U.S. and international roaming rates. Telus customers must now pay $14 daily to roam in the U.S., up from $12, while those visiting other destinations are charged $16, marking a $1 increase.
Bell users face a daily $13 charge to roam in the U.S., up from $12, and $16 in other countries, up from $15.
Neither companies immediately responded to requests for comment on the letter.
Rogers, which said it has no plans for a similar hike, charges $12 and $15 for daily U.S. and international roaming, respectively. The company said it is reviewing the minister's letter.
Roaming fees are part of "a concerning trend to charge more for existing services broadly at a time when inflationary pressures are making it difficult for Canadians to pay their bills," Champagne's letter reads.
Gerry Wall, president of Wall Communications Inc., said roaming fees have climbed drastically since 2019, when each of the major Canadian providers charged about $8 per day to make calls, texts, or use mobile data in the U.S.
He said it's left occasional travellers worse off.
"Over a four-year period you're talking about close to a 50 per cent or higher increase," said Wall, whose company publishes an annual report comparing Canadian phone and internet prices with those of other countries.
"For anybody that does international travel that doesn't have a plan that encompasses long distance calling between the U.S. and Canada, that's a big hit."
Champagne acknowledged the regulator's wireless code does not prevent carriers from increasing international roaming fees.
However, he noted the CRTC's code does include consumer protection provisions, such as those requiring service providers to notify users when roaming in another country and suspending charges without further consent once a user reaches $100 in fees.
The minister said companies could be increasing roaming fees as a way to raise overall costs without consumers being aware, since the sticker price when buying a phone plan is unchanged.
"Increases to these types of ancillary fees add to the cost of a consumer's bill beyond the main sticker price," he said in his letter.
"In many cases, these fees are much less visible and are unpredictable or challenging for consumers to understand."
While Wall downplayed that concern, noting customers receive notices when price changes occur, he said such decisions reflect carriers' attitudes that "the customers they have are sticky."
"Your decision becomes 'do I want to go through the hassle of trying to find an alternative provider that's not raising its rates for roaming, or is it just too much of a hassle for me?'" he said.
The minister has previously directed the CRTC to implement new rules to enhance consumer rights, affordability, competition and universal access.
The agency has since moved to lower some wholesale internet rates by 10 per cent as part of a review aimed at bolstering competition and lowering consumer costs. It also launched a consultation with the goal of "enhancing the resilience and reliability" of telecommunications networks.
Champagne praised both steps in his letter, saying they highlight "the importance of the CRTC's role in promoting competition and protecting consumers."
The federal budget next week will offer details about the Liberals' plan to crack down on hidden or unexpected consumer fees, a source told The Canadian Press.
While the budget is expected to provide more detail on the kinds of fees the federal government wants to go after, common examples are phone or internet surcharges or additional fees for flights or event tickets.
The government official, who was granted anonymity to discuss matters not yet public in the budget next week, said the CRTC is among the regulatory agencies expected to be involved in that effort.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.
Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:T, TSX:RCI.B)
Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press