2016-03-29 (Tuesday)

Today, I learned that:

Almost one decade ago, there was a big dispute in Canada over how to interpret the meaning of a comma in one paragraph of a contract between two companies in the telecommunications industry. And it was not academic, the amount in dispute was as high as 2,13 million Canadian dollars. You might have heard about the so-called “tele-comma” case, if not here is the story:

In the Canadian province of New Brunswick, located on the South East coast, the local electricity company, NB Power, leased space on their outside poles to the telecommunications corporation Rogers Communication, so that they could distribute cable TV by means of those poles. A third party, Bell Aliant Regional Communication administered the poles on behalf of NB Power, so the lease contract was drawn up between Aliant and Rogers in year 2002, with an initial validity of five years, renewable in five-year periods, and with cancellation possible with a one-year prior notice. However, in 2005, Aliant gave the one-year notice that the contract was cancelled and furthermore the cost of leasing the pole almost triplicated, from $ 9,60 per pole to $ 28,05, which multiplied by 91 000 poles would lead to an extra cost for Rogers of almost $ 1,7 million.

Aliant said that this was all regulated in the following paragraph of the contract: “[…This Agreement] shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.” They alleged that the comma in “… terms, unless …” gave them that right, which was also confirmed by Canada’s Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission.

However, Rogers kept insisting that the cited comma did not have any real meaning, and eventually found also a French version of the same contract, where such a comma did not exist. And they were successful in their appeal with the Commission, that reversed their earlier decision due to the existence of the French contract.


NB Power poles and light house in Caissie Point, New Brunswick. Photo by Charles W. Bash

Below are three references that gives all the juicy content of this case, the two first ones being Canadian newspapers, and the third one is a British law site with a different angle to the story. Read and learn, and after that be very sure that the contracts you sign do not contain any such draconic comma.

… That’s what I learned in school !


1: A $2-million comma? Au contraire, Rogers tells Aliant

2: Rogers wins ‘comma’ contract dispute

3: The case of the million-dollar comma

+: What did you learn in school today ?