OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government tried to preempt a consumer revolt against two leading phone companies on Wednesday, demanding explanations from the wireless units of BCE Inc and Telus Corp on their new pricing policy for text messages.
Both companies announced this week they would begin charging some customers for incoming text messages, which have been free until now.
"The decisions ... are ones that consumers have expressed concern about," Industry Minister Jim Prentice told reporters at a Calgary, Alberta, press conference. "We've decided to sit down and discuss this with the companies that have announced these intended price increases."
Prentice sent letters to the chief executives of Bell Mobility, a unit of BCE, and Telus asking them to meet with him before August 8, the date Bell plans to introduce its new charge.
The meeting has not yet been scheduled, the minister said.
The meeting -- a highly unusual move by a Conservative government that has sought to partly deregulate the telecommunications industry -- would take place "with a view to finding a solution that provides the best service to consumers at the best price," Prentice said.
Bell and Telus say they will charge 15 Canadian cents per incoming message. Telus said it will begin charging the fee August 24.
Prentice said he was particularly concerned that users could be charged for unsolicited, unwanted or spam messages. While he said he doesn't plan to interfere with the companies' day-to-day operations or decision-making, he's concerned consumers would be charged for spam messages.
"Spam is something consumers don't welcome and surely it's something consumers don't want to be paying for," he said. ."..The government, and myself as a minister, treat it as a very serious issue."
The wireless firms' move has caused an outcry among clients and prompted the New Democratic Party to launch an online petition demanding a reversal of the policy on Wednesday. Within hours, 5,000 people had put their names on the petition and the party's "I'm against the text message cash grab" group on the Facebook.com website has attracted 2,500 members since Tuesday afternoon, the party said in a release.
Telus defended its decision, saying the volume of text messages has skyrocketed and most U.S. carriers already charge for getting them, according to the Globe and Mail newspaper.
There are more than 20 million wireless phone subscribers in Canada and they send more than 45.3 million text messages a day, an industry group says.
The new charge would not apply to customers who have a monthly fee plan that includes text messages.
Additional reporting by Scott Haggett; Editing by Peter Galloway