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Check your cell plan twice

If a new smartphone is on your holiday shopping list, either as a gift or for yourself, there are a lot of possible choices to make — but some decisions about your contract could cost a lot more than you expect.

"The costs can mount up very quickly," said Howard Maker, a federal ombudsman who heads the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services, also known as CCTS.

Prices for some types of Canadian wireless service plans have fallen, but overall they remain high compared with other countries, according to a report commissioned by the federal government and released this week.

The biggest challenge for consumers, experts agree, is predicting data usage and its impact on service cost.

"In terms of estimating personal data usages, it's very difficult because it's abstract," said University of Ottawa assistant law professor Marina Pavlovic.

For example, it's hard to know how many gigabytes of data will be used to show a single YouTube video — let alone how many videos, photos, text messages, emails and internet searches will accumulate during a billing cycle.

Another difficulty, which may be reduced under recent regulatory changes, has been service contracts that allow data to be shared among multiple devices with different users, such as parents and their children.

Maker said extra fees on shared plans has been one of the most common complaints to the CCTS, which oversees the wireless industry's code of conduct on behalf of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

A revision to the wireless code, announced by the CRTC in June, was to address that problem by requiring service providers to notify account holders of overages from all devices and authorize only them to consent to extra fees.

But two of Canada's largest wireless service providers — Rogers and Telus — were unable to comply with that requirement by the Dec. 1 deadline and asked for several additional months to adjust their billing systems.

Pavlovic — one of the lead authors of a research study presented to the CRTC last year, as it was preparing to update the wireless code — believes it still requires consumers to spend too much time and energy to avoid bill shock.

She had wanted the CRTC, which sets the regulations that the CCTS oversees, to require vendors to provide consumers in advance with a check list of all the critical information they'd require to make an informed purchase.

"They did not go with our suggestion," she said.

But Pavlovic noted there are several general precautions that consumers can take, like watching out for promotional features, such as an extra gigabyte of data, that runs out before the contract. Prospective buyers should also be aware that vendors are required to provide a 15-day money-back guarantee, with certain conditions.

Other tips include checking your device settings right away, and reviewing periodically, to shut off any apps or features that require data. Also monitor usage meticulously, especially when a plan or device is new, and adjust data plan up or down as needed.

If your first bill arrives and it doesn't reflect what you expected, Pavlovic said, complain to the service provide and then be ready to go to the CCTS if necessary.



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