CRTC gives thumbs-up to telecom complaints agency

The CRTC has approved an industry-sponsored telecommunications complaints agency, giving cellphone and internet customers an official way to resolve their problems with service providers.

The CRTC has approved an industry-sponsoredtelecommunications consumer complaints agency, givingcellphone and internet customers an officialway to resolve their problems with service providers.

The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, set up on a provisional basis in July, was given the nod by the regulator on Thursday to accept complaints on unregulated offerings, including local land-line telephones, long-distance calling, Voice over Internet Protocol, cellphones and internet services.

Complaints over regulated offerings —including local phone services in some parts of the country, emergency and accessibility services, pay phones and 900/976 premium services —will continue to be handled by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

The CCTS, based in Ottawa,was created after then Minister of Industry Maxime Bernier ordered deregulation of the phone industry earlier this year. In April, he called on the industry to work with the CRTC to establish an independent consumer complaints agency as part of that process.

The CCTS has established a good track recordbysuccessfully resolving the majority of the more than 1,000 complaints it has received since it opened, the CRTC said.

"We are very pleased that the industry came together to establish this consumer agency so quickly," said CRTC chair Konrad von Finckenstein in a statement. "It will provide residential and small business customers with an effective, accessible and consumer-friendly recourse when they are unable to resolve a disagreement with their service provider."

The CRTCadvises customers to contact the CCTS if they are unable to resolve their problem with the provider. The CCTS will then assess whether the service in question is regulated or not, and will direct the customer to the CRTC if the matter falls under the regulator's jurisdiction.

Service providers will have 20 days to resolve complaints forwarded to them by the CCTS. If they do not resolve them in that period, the agency's staff will investigate and make recommendations. The CCTS will ultimately have the power to make binding decisions if the service provider continues to refuse to resolve the problem.

Among the powers of the CCTS is the ability to force providers to apologize to customers andpay up to $5,000 in compensation. Providers can also be forced to undertake a specific action or cease a specific activity.

The CRTC held a public hearing in November to determine the future of the CCTS.

Some consumer interest groups, including the Public Interest Advocacy Council, were concerned that the complaints agency was not independentenough, andfunded and run by the service providers.

PIAC was generally pleased with the CRTC's decision, which included several modifications to the agency's structure. Its board of directors will be comprised of seven members, four of whom will be independent. Consumer groups will get to appoint two of those four directors.

$10M revenue providers must join

The CRTC also ordered all telecommunications service providers with annual revenue of more than $10 million to join the CCTS by Feb. 1. So far, all of the country's major providers have joined with the exception of Calgary-based Shaw Communications Inc. and Toronto-based Primus Canada.

"It's good because people have a place to go now," saidPIAC lawyer John Lawford. "Previously, if you had a dispute over a cellphone bill, they'd just tell you to switch providers and keep sending you a bill. This will really help the market."

The agency still isn't independent enough, Lawford said, which should become apparent over time.

"If there's a need to fine tune this thing, it'll become apparent over the next year or so," he said. "We'll see how aggressive it is over the first year or two."

The CRTC has given service providers 45 days to file a plan on how they will promote the complaints agency to its customers. PIAC has said service providers shouldinclude the agency'scontact information at the bottom of every bill.