The Competition Bureau is investigating whether BCE Inc. used “false and misleading representations” to sell its television, internet and home phone services.
The watchdog officially launched the investigation into the country’s biggest communications company last August, but it has come to light now because of an application the bureau filed last week at the Federal Court of Canada.
News of the probe comes less than two months after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission concluded that the country’s telecom providers engage in misleading or aggressive sales tactics that harm vulnerable members of the public. The CRTC report, which followed a week-long public hearing in October, did not single out any particular companies.
A series of reports by the CBC early last year highlighted alleged aggressive sales practices by Bell Canada retail employees or third parties the company hired to sell its products in stores or door to door. The stories and subsequent media coverage spurred both the CRTC proceeding and the Competition Bureau’s investigation.
“The bureau is examining potentially false and misleading representations made in connection with the promotion of Bell’s residential services, including home phone, internet and television sold separately or in bundles,” Jayme Albert, a spokesman for the bureau, said Wednesday. “The bureau’s investigation is ongoing and there is no conclusion of wrongdoing at this time.”
The bureau typically operates with a great deal of secrecy. It only confirms investigations when they are made public, for instance through court proceedings or the filing of charges, Mr. Albert said.
The competition watchdog went to court in this case to seek an order for the disclosure of records related to Bell’s sales practices from the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-television Services (CCTS), a federal ombudsman that handles consumer complaints about the telecom industry.
“We’re aware of the bureau’s process and will work with them as we would any of the regulatory authorities,” BCE spokesman Mark Langton said Wednesday.
Josée Pilotte, a competition law officer with the bureau, swore an affidavit in support of the court application, saying the investigation relates to the sale of residential services by Bell in Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces.
“The investigation has revealed that there are a number of ways in which consumers are allegedly misled by Bell and its third-party representatives,” Ms. Pilotte said. She said consumers were led to believe the services were “cheap,” or “inexpensive” or a “good deal.” They were also told that the price would not rise for a fixed term, or that they could get the same price in the future, even once a promotional period ended, by contacting Bell to request the quoted price again.
That contradicts Bell’s terms of service, which state that the company may alter the price of its services at any time, Ms. Pilotte said.
She said the bureau also interviewed a former third-party door-to-door sales agent and had officers pose as potential clients in online chats, where they were on the receiving end of false or misleading representations.
Finally, she said some consumers were sold on “fibre-to-the-home” service when in fact the faster, fibre-optic cables in their neighbourhood did not go directly to their home.
Ms. Pilotte said she believes Bell has engaged in such practices “since at least January 1, 2017,” noting that the bureau has received approximately 65 related complaints since that time.
The Competition Bureau has asked the CCTS for copies of complaints filed against Bell. The bureau is seeking a court order because the CCTS said it could not share the information voluntarily owing to its confidentiality obligations. A federal court hearing is scheduled for Thursday.
The Competition Bureau’s court filing was reported earlier this week by Blacklock’s Reporter, an online publication that covers the federal government, and by telecommunications trade publication The Wire Report.
In 2011, Bell paid a fine of $10-million after the Competition Bureau investigated it for making misleading representations about its prices, finding that the company’s actual prices were higher than what it advertised.