When big telecoms had to go the distance to keep customers – CBC.ca

In 1994, the upcoming Canada Day was shaping up to be a good one for many Canadians, at least when it came to reaching out to friends and family with a long-distance call. 

“There used to be only one game in town when it came to long-distance telephone service,” Peter Mansbridge told viewers of Prime Time News in this June 29, 1994 report.  

“Now there’s competition and … it’s going to be much easier for most Canadians to use the competition.”

Over the next year, “equal access” would come into effect across the country, beginning July 1 with Bell in Ontario and Quebec and in the Atlantic provinces. Customers in Alberta, B.C., and Manitoba would see the change over the next year. 

It could take 17 numbers to make a cheaper long-distance call before the new rules of 1994. (The National/CBC Archives)

The change was ushering in “a new era in long-distance competition,” the CBC’s Ron Charles reported.

Canadians were now free to sign up for a subscription with rival long-distance providers, thanks to access to telephone networks granted to the competitor carriers, and making the call would be far less complicated. 

Callers wanting to take advantage of cheaper long-distance calls via competitors like Unitel would no longer need to punch in upwards of 17 numbers on their home phones.

Now Canadian telephone subscribers were the prize in an all-out war between the companies like Bell and competitors, waged in the form of television ads, telemarketing calls and “gimmicks” like the Toronto Unitel event in this report.

Free long-distance phone calls were offered to lure customers from Bell to Unitel in 1994. (The National/CBC Archives)

“It will enable us to grow our market share even faster,” Unitel Chairman George Harvey asserted, thanks to what he called a “level playing field.”

Charles checked in with Bell Canada, which, according to a Globe and Mail report of June 28, 1994, was calling this “the single most important event in its history.”

Companies like Bell are entering the marketing fray and customers might benefit. 0:54

The company, he said, had already reported a loss of “10 to 14 per cent of its market to competitors” and was keen to join in on the conversation with customers, and “get into the marketing game.”

“We’re not laying down and waiting for the competition at this point in time,” said Bell’s Sandra Cruickshanks. “We’re out there aggressively talking to our customers … we’re telling them about our products and services.”

This could be good for consumers, according to telecommunications analyst Iain Angus, who believed that even if customers decided to stay with companies like Bell, “they’re gonna get better service because of competition.”

In the meantime, hungry rival companies tempted new customers, with events like the Unitel one — with cake, balloons, and free long-distance phone calls to anywhere in the world.

Unitel celebrated the new rules for long-distance competitors with balloons, cake and free calls. (The National/CBC Archives)

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