On Wednesday, Canada's major telecom companies will have to answer to the government for "skinny" TV packages that have been labelled a "ripoff" by Canadians.
In 2015, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that companies must offer a $25 "skinny" cable package, partly to benefit people earning a lower income. However, additional fees and installation charges added up so that the packages often cost a lot more than that—in some cases, up to $100 per month. In response, Canadians called bullshit and complained to the CRTC en masse.
Over two days of hearings beginning on Wednesday, Canada's top cable providers will have to prove that their skinny plans are in compliance with the CRTC's standards, and that their packages meet the "spirit" of the skinny initiative. These hearings are part of the regulator's annual broadcasting license renewal process, meaning that if the companies aren't compliant, they could theoretically lose their license to operate in Canada.
"The CRTC has seen and heard different things from Canadians," CRTC spokesperson Céline Legault wrote me in an email. "In some cases, Canadians claim that if they switch to the basic package they would lose bundling discounts. Others have complained of high equipment fees. The CRTC has also received complaints about the channels included in the basic package."
Rogers, Shaw, Bell Canada, and Quebec-based provider Videotron will testify at the hearings. Bell, arguably the worst offender of the bunch, charges "skinny" customers between $60 and $100 per month after additional charges, and in February the CBC discovered that the company was instructing sales staff to not promote the plans to potential customers.
"We're hoping that the CRTC reprimands these giants for not complying with the spirit of the rules"
Bell Canada argued in its submission to the CRTC that its packages are "fully compliant" with the CRTC's regulations. The company's basic TV package is delivered over the internet, and so it requires customers to additionally purchase internet service at a minimum of $24.95 on top of the cost of the "skinny" plan, according to the submission.
"We're hoping that the CRTC reprimands these giants for not complying with the spirit of the rules," said Meghan Sali, a spokesperson for digital rights group OpenMedia, in an interview. "What's disappointing is that we've already talked about it. The CRTC came out with the regulations it wanted implemented, and now we're going back to another publicly-funded hearing to argue about whether or not these things have happened in the spirit of the regulations."
As for what the federal regulator can do to twist the arm of telecoms, "the CRTC has multiple tools and options at its disposal to address cases of non-compliance, which include the imposition of conditions of licence and shortened licence renewal," Legault wrote me.
In Canada's tiny telecom market, dominated by a handful of large companies—Rogers, Bell, and Telus, as well as Videotron in Quebec—losing a broadcasting license would be disastrous, and might even further narrow Canadians' already meagre selection of cable providers.
In other words, just offer a $25 cable package, will you already?