Ongoing Lawsuit Claims Rogers, Telus, Bell Misled Customers Over System Access Fee

One of the relics of the past, when it came to owning a cellphone in Canada, was the dreaded system access fee, charged by Rogers, Telus and Bell, which the incumbents ended in 2009.

But an ongoing class action lawsuit, which was certified in 2007, continues, led by Regina-based lawyer Tony Merchant and his firm, reports CBC News.

“The whole process was designed to give the impression of a government fee,” claims Merchant, adding “The companies were unjustly enriched, so they received money for providing nothing extra.”

Some Customers are Still Paying the System Access Fee

Despite Rogers, Telus and Bell removing the system access fee, which was charged monthly at the price of $6.95, some customers on legacy plans are still paying the fee.

Toronto resident, Harry Sivalingam, told CBC News his 70-year old father is still paying the system access fee on his old plan. If his father wants to stop paying the fee, he has to switch over to a current in-market plan, which is more expensive compared to his old plan.

Merchant hints the ‘Big 3’ did not entirely remove the system access fee for all customers in 2009, as it would have admitted wrongdoing, saying “They came down in-between. They didn’t immediately abandon [it] and they didn’t continue, either.”

When the system access fee was removed in 2009, telcos raised prices of monthly plans to make up for the lost revenue.

The system access fee began in 1982 through 1987, when wireless customers paid the charges to the federal government on their bill. But in 1987, telcos were instead charged to license the fee, which Merchant claims worked out to “pennies” per customer, but wireless companies continued to charge the fee and pocket the profits.

“People were used to paying these amounts and they were used to seeing the charge,” said Merchant, adding “They were deceived.”

The Bell MTS website clarifies for those still paying the fee, it is to “recover the costs associated with operating and maintaining a wireless network.”

John Lawford, executive director of the consumer advocacy group, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said he wants the CRTC to look into forcing telcos to improve billing so customers know exactly what they’re paying for.

“You can’t compare service prices across providers, because they break their bills up into a million different forms,” said Lawford, adding “You don’t know exactly what you’re paying and whether your bill went up.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Merchant’s class action lawsuit against cellphone companies and the system access fee would be allowed to proceed, which at the time sought to recoup $19 billion for wireless consumers.