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Telecom Complaints Commissioner Remains a Relative Unknown

Appeared in the Toronto Star on August 9, 2010 as Telecom Complaints Commissioner Remains a Relative Unknown

Hockey may be Canada’s national pastime, but 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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