Toronto In a classic community organizing case of people discovering that what they had thought was a personal problem was actually a collective issue, a workshop on campaigning to bridge the digital divide at the ACORN Canada bi-annual convention became group bonding over virtually universal experiences of telecom rip-offs, price gouging, bad service, predatory practices, and slow internet. The experience was shocking and outrageous, but transforming in creating a deeper understanding and commitment to a far more expansive campaign than we had realized. This is not a Canadian story, but one that is echoed in the United States, Mexico, and many other countries as telecommunications companies have been allowed to buffalo and flummox so-called regulators and construct monopolies out of public services that should now have the status of basic utilities.
A mother, originally from Iraq now living in Ottawa, triggered the torrent of complaints with her story of needing internet for her three children in order for them to fully participate in school, and buying a plan promoted by Rogers and seeing almost immediately the price triple compared to the initial offering. She switched to Bell and saw the experience duplicated and quickly priced out of any hopes of being paid on her lower income. Finally, she ended up with a low cost plan from a company called Tech Savvy, but the speed is so slow that her daughter now in university cannot successfully download assignments.
A man told a story of careful research to buy a phone and a fixed price phone plan from a company, and detailed his arguments with the company when they then raised the price 10 times claiming the monthly bill he had agreed to was actually a daily bill which would have him paying $150 per month. As he detailed his discussions with the company about the rip-off, it became clear to him – and to all of us – that his complaints had morphed into a negotiation with the company in which they were establishing pricing for him out of thin air to keep him as a customer and, more significantly, to prevent him from making his experience public.
Kay Bisnah, president of ACORN Canada and ACORN International, related a recent experience where her agreement to pay some $80 per month was greeted with a bill for $190, and then when she paid only $80 on that bill after failing to be able to get the company to respond on the phone after more than an hour on-hold waiting, was billed $600 including service and collection fees the company larded on. She was not alone as other members from British Columbia and Ottawa joined to tell stories of bills that had become $1000, $1600, and more.
Underlying all of this was their painful stories of needing access to the internet and basic cable for job searches, for their own schooling and their children. Story after story was shared of crazy, excruciating arguments with telecom representatives frequently from call centers in India and elsewhere, punctuated by comparisons that many people had from their own immigrant experience, like the member who paid $40 per month in Sweden for one of the highest speeds in the world.
ACORN members were full of ideas for how to deal with what called the Bellusrogers conspiracy (for Bell-Telus-Rogers, the 3 big Canadian companies). We were convinced after the workshop that this was a campaign that was much deeper and broader than we had realized. Winning access to internet is not enough if we are leading people to financial slaughter by the telecoms with the government a passive, accomplice derelict in its duty. People walked out excited, “in it to win it” for as long as that might take.