Rogers, Telus criticize consumer complaints agency

Canada's telecommunications consumer complaints agency came under fire from some of the country's largest telecom companies on Tuesday.

Canada's telecommunications consumer complaints agency, about to celebrate its first birthday, came under fire from some of the country's largest telecom companies on Tuesday, with Rogers Communications Inc. taking issue with the $1,000 cost incurred per incident filed with the body.

"I'm not here to abolish the [Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services]," said Rogers' head of regulatory affairs Ken Engelhart. "I'm just saying it's a waste of money."

Engelhart was speaking as part of the "regulatory blockbuster" panel discussion at the Canadian Telecom Summit, which also included representatives from Bell Canada Inc., Telus Corp., MTS Allstream Inc. and the Public Interest Advocacy Council.

The CCTS is a byproduct of the government's directive to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that it practice more hands-off regulation. The CRTC requires all large Canadian telecommunications service providers to be members of the CCTS, which otherwise governs itself.

Engelhart said Rogers has paid $400,000 to resolve 400 complaints from the CCTS since the organization's launch last July. He said he did not understand why telecommunications companies were paying to operate the agency when its primary job seems to be the forwarding of complaints back to the service providers for resolution.

Rogers, he said, was serving its customers well before it was forced to join the CCTS, a requirement that only happened because the CRTC deregulated phone companies last year.

"If you ain't got customer service, you ain't got nothing," he told an audience of 500. "Competitive forces drive companies to provide good service."

Janet Yale, head of regulatory affairs for Telus, said that while she had no quarrel with the CCTS, the better recourse for consumers is to exercise their right of choice and go with a better service provider.

"The point of competition is that consumers have choice. If they don't like how they're being treated by their provider, they can go somewhere else," she said. "As long as we continue to protect them from themselves, we're going to be in a situation where they don't fully exploit the benefits of competition."

Bell's head of regulatory affairs, Mirko Bibic, disagreed with criticisms of the CCTS and the notion that it is not supported by the industry. Bibic, who helped formulate the agency and sits on its board of directors, said it would be more constructive to discuss how to make the CCTS better rather than complain about having to take part in it.

PIAC counsel John Lawford, however, accused Bell of saying one thing while doing the other by recently successfully convincing the CRTC to lower the maximum damages the CCTS can award.

"It looks like you're patting it on the back while you're stabbing it in the back," he said.

The panellists also discussed net neutrality — or the non-discriminatory treatment of internet traffic. Both Rogers and Bell have taken heat in recent months for limiting the speeds of peer-to-peer applications, prompting a public protest and a CRTC probe.

Lawford said specific regulations are needed to keep service providers from turning the internet into a multi-tiered system that benefits certain companies, or even themselves.

"It's a short hop from blocking one application to block one competitor or blocking one website as has been done with certain unions in the past," he said, referring to Telus's move to block access in 2005 to the Telecommunications Workers Union site.

Bell, Rogers and Telus — which says it does not throttle any internet applications — all disagreed. Engelhart said it was "preposterous" that ISPs will give content providers a hard time, since they are the ones that are creating the reasons to buy internet access from companies like Rogers in the first place.

Bibic said new rules to govern internet access aren't necessary because a problem hasn't yet arisen. "I thought we had done away with this 'just in case' regulation," he said.

Yale agreed and said the CRTC already has all the existing tools in the Telecommunications Act to prevent any possible abuses of the internet.

The Canadian Telecom Summit continues on Wednesday with another panel discussion devoted entirely to net neutrality.