Telecom Complaints Commissioner Remains a Relative Unknown

Hockey may be Canada’s national pastime, but my weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that complaining about the major telephone and cable companies sometimes seems like it ranks a close second.  Delayed Canadian launches of the latest phones, new caps on Internet bandwidth, increased monthly subscription fees, and the entry of additional marketplace competitors all regularly attract significant media attention as consumers focus on their monthly Internet and wireless bills far more intensely than most other products and services.

Notwithstanding the public interest, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services toils in relative anonymity.  Established in 2007, the CCTS came as part of a deregulation bargain initiated by then-Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, who deregulated many local telephone markets and established an industry-funded telecom complaints commissioner.

The result was the CCTS, which receives several thousand complaints every year.  The range of services within its mandate is very broad as home telephone, long distance services, wireless, and Internet access, are all deregulated and thus qualify.  The CCTS is able to address complaints involving issues such as compliance with contractual terms, billing disputes, service delivery, credit management, and unauthorized transfer of services (a practice known as “slamming”).

According to its 2008-09 annual report, the CCTS opened over 3,200 complaints, though it issued only six decisions. Wireless services were the leading source of concern (38 percent of all complaints), followed by local phone service and Internet access.  By comparison, a similar Australian agency that has been in place since 1993 receives over 150,000 complaints annually.

While it is still relatively new, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission recently launched a public consultation on the future of the CCTS.  Some providers such as MTS Allstream responded that no change is needed, but others are not so sure.

Bell argued the CCTS is simply not needed, maintaining that unregulated markets are by definition competitive and it is therefore in the interests of all competitors to provide “high quality customer service and complaints resolution.” Should the CCTS continue, however, Bell concluded that it is premature to make any determinations about its effectiveness, though it believes that membership should be mandatory.

Shaw was similarly skeptical of the need for the CCTS, but focused most of its comments on the power of the CRTC to mandate that service providers become members and pay the requisite fees.  Characterizing the mandatory membership requirement as “re-regulation” of deregulated services, Shaw implausibly argued that the CCTS is so well known that the market will determine its value.  If consumers value the existence of a complaints commissioner, they will choose providers that are members and thereby encourage membership.

Three major cable companies – Rogers, Cogeco, and Videotron – submitted joint comments that focused on the CCTS mandate.  The companies were also of the view that mandatory membership is no longer needed, but even more concerned with the prospect of mission-creep, noting that the CCTS “should not be tasked with creating or developing regulations or industry codes; it is far more useful in its role providing input and assistance to the industry” (Telus expressed much the same concern).

Standing on the opposite side of the issue were Canadian consumer groups, who not only want to see the CCTS renewed but expanded.  Noting that thousands of complaints are dismissed for being “out of scope,” the groups argued that the solution is to expand the commissioner’s scope, generate more publicity, and restructure the board to ensure greater independence from industry.

The CRTC is expected to rule on the future of the CCTS before the end of the year.

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  1. Ha!
    With the way bell/rogers/etc are monopolizing and effectively screwing all consumers in Canada with lower caps and higher prices, should anyone really be taking stock in what they have to say about the CCTS?

    COME ON PEOPLE. How can so many be so blind as to what’s going on? Evidently some people are being bribed through the nose by these groups.. yeesh

  2. Wow. …..
    I totally agree with first comment. Read the comments in the below article…U.S. citizens are even saying their worst services are far better than our “good” ones….a few are even “writing” letters their to their cable companies to apologize for complaining.

  3. Good ol Rogers never stops. Seems Netflix might be a competitor with their own on demand service

  4. Out of scope
    Looking at the “out of scope” contacts, it appears that there was even some general confusion about what they cover. For instance, of 2667 out of scope contacts, 260 were about telemarketing.

    I have no particular problem with the idea of expanding the scope of the organization, but let’s make sure that there is little to no overlap with the jurisdiction of another oversight body.

    A bigger issue is that there were 1940 contacts about non-members; the CCTS couldn’t take the complaint in those situations.

  5. Classic
    “Standing on the opposite side of the issue were Canadian consumer groups”

    LOL .. doesn’t that just say it all 0_o

  6. I’m not sure that the CCTS even knows
    I had a contract issue with Telus that the CCTS got involved in about two years ago but when someone else with an identical issue used my exact same wording in their complaint (I furnished it to them, mostly because of my raw, seething hate for Telus,) they dismissed it as “out of scope.”

    It seems odd that one employee would take up the issue while another would dismiss it unless there was some serious issues with their own employees not knowing what it is that they do.

  7. Out of Scope
    I would imagine a large proportion of the “out of scope” complaints were related to the throttling of third party wholesalers/access sharers by Bell.

    Customers of those ISP’s are at the mercy of the CRTC, which up to the present has been in the pocket of Bell.

    The peasants have a voice, but no one wishes to hear them.

  8. Canada’s New Blood Sport !
    Politics is Canada’s new bloodsport !

    Read all about it !

  9. CCTS Complaint Process
    One point of note, the CCTS does not resolve contractual issues, but rather sees if “the provider has complied with its obligations to you under its Terms of Service and internal policies and procedures”. Note that some of the terms of service and internal policies and procedures can actually be against the contract and against fair trading act of the province you are in. An example in a dispute I had the provider raised my monthly rate and I objected and canceled under Alberta’s Fair Trading Act (which allows for a consumer to cancel a contract if the fees change without the expressed consent of the consumer, now there is an argument that having a 8pt note in your bill that the services are going up $1/$10 /mo does not constitutes expressed consent). The provider charged the early termination fee. The CCTS made their decision that the provider upheld their terms of service and they do not get involved in actual contract disputes that is for the courts.

  10. @Tony
    My complaint was actually a violation of the CWTA Code of Conduct (which the CCTS administers and adjudicates on,). Surely your billing change would fall under the CWTA CoC and would be adjudicated on by the CCTS if you approached it that way.

  11. Why Rogers
    I have now faxed Rogers office of the president three times, called them twice and emailed three times. No one has wrote back to me. Every time i call head office i get a different answer i would like Rogers to be accountable for what reps say. I have now filed a complaint with CCTS which i feel is going to help with this. I will keep you updated. Feel free to follow @grabka on twitter for results of Rogers complaint. I also have the letter posted that i sent them.