While no one ever likes a price hike on their telecom bill, some Bell and TekSavvy customers are shocked to be facing one now — in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Internet provider TekSavvy says it had no choice but to raise rates largely due to ongoing court challenges that involve the big telcos, while Bell says it put its price-hike plans in motion before the outbreak.
But that provides little solace for Bell customer Kelsey Shaffer, a motel owner in Kakabeka Falls, Ont., who noticed a price increase on her March 25 phone bill with Virgin Mobile, a brand owned by Bell. The combined cost of two phone plans for her family had increased by 10 per cent to $110 a month.
“I was angry and upset,” she said. “Just the fact that it’s happening right now — when nobody has money and a bunch of people are out of work — is an extra slap in the face.”
While the motel remains open during the pandemic, Shaffer estimates business has declined by 75 per cent since mid-March, as most people have stopped travelling.
“Every penny counts right now,” she said. “It’s really, really bad optics for [Bell].”
When asked by CBC News for comment and additional details about the increases, Bell spokesperson Nathan Gibson said they affect “a portion of internet and wireless customers” and took effect on March 1.
COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11. Provinces didn’t start ordering businesses to close and Canadians to stay home until later that month.
Gibson said customers were warned about the coming price hikes back in December or January.
CBC interviewed five Bell customers who were hit with a $5 monthly increase for their wireless plan, or a $5-$6 increase for their internet plan. They said they either missed the warning notice or, in one case, forgot about it, and were taken aback when the price hike showed up on their bill in late March or early April.
“It just seems to me really thoughtless,” said Sugith Varughese of Toronto, whose internet plan with Bell went up by $6 a month on his April 6 bill.
The actor, who has appeared on CBC television shows, said he hasn’t worked since mid-March, when a play he was cast in got cancelled due to COVID-19.
“Going ahead with an internet price increase during a pandemic is completely unfair because I — like almost every other Canadian — am really dependent on internet now.”
Some price increases suspended
Although Bell set its price increases in motion months ago, consumer advocate Laura Tribe argues the telco could have suspended its plans when COVID-19 turned into a pandemic.
“What we’ve seen is people are adapting based on the current circumstances and it’s unfortunate Bell isn’t doing the same,” said Tribe, executive director of Open Media, an advocacy group in Vancouver.
Bell said it has made concessions for customers during the COVID-19 crisis, including temporarily waiving overage fees on many limited internet plans and suspending planned rate increases on select TV and home phone plans that were set to roll out May 1.
Gibson said that for customers already hit with price hikes, Bell is “happy to discuss any concerns customers may have with their accounts during this challenging time.”
Shaffer, the motel owner, said she complained to Bell about her $10 monthly increase and was offered a one-time $20 credit. She said she declined and plans to leave Bell for another provider that offers a cheaper phone plan.
Varughese, the actor, also complained to Bell and said he was unsuccessful in getting a break on his price increase.
“They were very sympathetic, but they said, ‘No, we informed you in December.’ And I said … ‘I’m not sure why that matters.'”
Some Rogers customers have also received notices about TV and internet price increases that were set to begin on April 28. The telco announced on March 22 that it had suspended those increases until later this year.
TekSavvy hikes prices
Meanwhile, TekSavvy is raising the monthly price of all residential internet plans by $5 starting in May.
In 2019, TekSavvy lowered prices on many internet plans following a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission decision to decrease the rates internet resellers such as TekSavvy pay telcos to access their broadband networks.
But due to legal battles launched by a handful of telcos, including Bell and Rogers, the mandated rate change has been put on hold.
That suspension, along with increased internet use by customers, forced TekSavvy to raise rates, the company said.
“We had previously lowered rates and we as a company were taking monthly losses,” said Mike Stanford, vice-president of marketing for TekSavvy. “We needed to raise rates in order to stabilize the business.”
Still, some TekSavvy customers aren’t happy about the $5 increase.
“I was shocked,” said Danielle Tremblay, a freelance communications adviser in Ottawa who says her work dried up in late March due to COVID-19.
“They should have at least tried to wait another month or something just because the optics are so bad.”
Stanford agrees the optics are terrible, but insists the company had no choice.