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Big Three's Q1 average monthly wireless bills but some fees on the rise

TORONTO — Quarterly reports from Rogers, Bell Canada and Telus show their average monthly billing per mobile phone user was down in early 2021 compared with last year's first quarter.

TORONTO — Quarterly reports from Rogers, Bell Canada and Telus show their average monthly billing per mobile phone user was down in early 2021 compared with last year's first quarter. 

Each of the Big Three reported over recent weeks that they earned less from roaming fees because fewer customers are travelling during the pandemic.

They similarly made less from overage fees as more customers switched to unlimited data plans that don't charge extra if usage goes above the monthly limit.

As a result, the average mobile bill per user at Bell slipped 3.4 per cent from last year to $70.34, the Telus average monthly mobile bill fell 4.4 per cent to $68.79 per user and the Rogers average fell 4.6 per cent to $62.13 per user.

However, Telus chief financial officer Doug French said Friday after the company's first-quarter results were released that average revenue per mobile user will start moving up again.

Each of the companies offers a wide range of mobile plans, with retail prices that change frequently, meaning individual bills can vary significantly.

"We've continued to grow our customer base," French said. "We expect our revenue per customer to actually turn to be slightly positive next quarter."

The three biggest telecom companies are under pressure from the Liberal government, which has given Bell, Rogers and Telus two years to lower wireless prices by 25 per cent from a 2020 benchmark.

The latest quarterly analysis issued by the federal government, for the months of January, February and March, reported that some plans had met the 25 per cent target, while some prices were down as little as nine per cent compared with the benchmark.

The analysis primarily tracks prices for the Big Three's flanker brands Virgin (Bell), Fido (Rogers) and Koodo (Telus) rather than the main brands that offer unlimited plans without overage fees.

Critics of the Big Three say they've been able to use their market power — a combined 88 per cent of all subscribers in Canada — to keep overall wireless prices among the highest in the world.

Rogers earlier this year announced a proposed takeover of Shaw Communications, whose Freedom wireless brand competes with the three largest carriers in some regions. Opponents of the deal as currently envisioned argue the loss of competition will lead to higher prices.

Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and Canada Research Chair in internet and e-commerce law, said in March that a Rogers takeover of Shaw would clearly result in reduced competition in several major markets and higher prices.''

The three companies have argued that international price comparisons are based on faulty data analysis, but they've agreed to meet the federal target by early 2022.

Mirko Bibic, who is CEO of both Bell Canada and its parent BCE Inc., also told shareholders at BCE's annual meeting in April that overall wireless prices are "most definitely down in a significant way."

But Bibic also revealed in answer to a shareholder's question that there have been "a select number of price increases" — for certain add-on fees for its wireless services.

"And that was to bring the prices of those add-ons in line with market rates being charged by our competitors," Bibic said.

Bibic was referring to one-time or occasional fees for things like restoring service to an account that's been suspended, sometimes called a restoral or resumption fee.

The total amount collected by the companies from these add-on fees, which typically include things like restoring service after a suspension for lack of payment, wasn't immediately available.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2021.

Companies in this story: (TSX:BCE, TSX:RCI. B, TSX:T)

David Paddon, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version erroneously described customers' wireless plan preferences.

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