VANCOUVER, British Columbia, April 17 (Reuters) - Canada's telecoms regulator ordered Telus Corp (T.TO) on Thursday to refund a monthly fee it began charging customers last November for access to a long-distance system they did not use.
Canada's second largest phone company began charging the C$2.95 monthly network access fee to customers who used its local phone service but who never signed up for long-distance service, either from Telus or another carrier.
The Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered Telus to refund the fee paid by customers during months in which they never made long-distance calls. People who did make long-distance calls will not get a refund.
The fee had been challenged by a consumer group, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, and by Yak Communications, a small phone services provider.
The regulator said about 500,000 customers in British Columbia and Alberta had been charged the fee, but it was not immediately known how much money Telus would have to refund.
Telus said it was studying the ruling and may appeal it.
"Obviously we're disappointed with this ruling. We don't agree with the logic that the CRTC applied, and dispute their fundamental premise," said Shawn Hall, a spokesman for the Vancouver-headquartered company.
Telus had argued the fee helped it recoup the cost of maintaining the long-distance network it is required to keep in place even if customers do not use it.
The CRTC ruled that, since these customers did not make long-distance calls, the access fee amounted to an unauthorized hike in local rates.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre called the ruling a partial victory, and said the fee was one result of the CRTC's own rush to deregulate Canada's phone system, which had gone largely unnoticed by most consumers.
John Lawford, the group's lawyer, warned that since the regulator allowed Telus to charge the fee to customers who make at least one long-distance call each month, similar fees will likely be adopted by the country's other phone companies. (Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson)