A commission to lodge complaints about cellphone service represents a 'big change,' says David McKendry, the interim head of the CCTS. ((CBC))

The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services was established a year ago, but few Canadians are even aware there's an agency where they can take their cellphone and internet gripes.

In its first year of operation, the complaints body has fielded more than 5,000 inquiries, with almost 2,000 qualifying as matters for investigation. But compared with similar agencies in other countries, such as Australia's Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, which dealt with more than 100,000 complaints last year, the figure is paltry.

Consumer groups say the low number doesn't reflect a lack of angry customers, but rather that the CCTS has spent the past year getting up and running and has yet to promote itself to the Canadian public.

"People are finding it mostly, I'm afraid, through word of mouth and through referrals from the CRTC," said John Lawford, a lawyer for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. "It's a wonderful thing if it works, but it has to be taken seriously and get rolling."

The CCTS was set up last July after an order from then minister of industry Maxime Bernier, who was following a 2006 recommendation from the telecommunications policy review panel. The agency is funded by contributions from service providers and run by a board of directors, with ultimate oversight coming from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

 Nature of complaint  Percentage
 Billing error  19%
 Compliance with terms  16%
 Other (specified by complainant)  15%
 Service delivery  14%
 Overcharged  7%
 Credit management  4%
 Charged after disconnection  3%
 Unauthorized transfer of service  2%

It accepts complaints on services that aren't regulated by the CRTC, including local land-line telephones, long-distance calling, voice over internet protocol, cellphones and internet services. Complaints are first forwarded back to the carrier. If they aren't immediately resolved there, the CCTS mediates and issues a non-binding decision. If either party refuses the recommendation, the commissioner issues a binding decision.

David McKendry, the interim commissioner, said he has only had to make two binding decisions over the past year, and most complaints are immediately resolved.

"That's a really significant indicator of our success. Virtually all of our complaints have been settled without any intervention," he says. "Up until now as a consumer you've had nowhere to go to complain about wireless and internet access. That's a big change."

Much of the past year has been spent hammering out how the organization is to be run and who pays what. Earlier this year, the CRTC added a few new caveats to the agency's operating procedures, including the expansion of its governing board to include more independent directors, the capping of customers' complaints to direct damages up to a maximum of $5,000, a membership requirement for all companies earning more than $10 million in annual revenue, and the limiting of that membership to three years. The CRTC said it would examine the three-year requirement when the first period concludes.

Board of directors now set

The CCTS settled on its board of directors only two months ago. Its board is chaired by Mary Gusella, the former head of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, and also counts former ambassador to Germany Marie Bernard-Meunier as a member. The other two independent directors are Richard Gathercole, a former lawyer with the B.C. arm of PIAC, and Jean Sébastien of Quebec's Union des consommateurs. The industry's three representatives are Mirko Bibic from Bell Canada Inc., Dennis Béland from Vidéotron Ltée and Michelle Dupuis from Distributel Communications Ltd.

The board is meeting on Monday to work out some final details, including its code of procedure and the hiring of a permanent chief executive officer to replace McKendry, who has been running the CCTS on a part-time basis since its inception. McKendry, a former consumer advocate and CRTC commissioner, said he only accepted the job last year on terms that he would put in just five days a month.

Consumers were supposed to have better knowledge of the CCTS by now, but the creation of a promotional strategy was pushed back until the independent directors could be added to the board, McKendry said. It was a move supported by the directors from the telecommunications providers.

 Province  Number of complaints
 Ontario  1,814
 Quebec  738
 British Columbia  670
 Nova Scotia  139
 Alberta  113
 Saskatchewan  58
 Newfoundland  24
 Yukon  11
 Prince Edward Island  6
 New Brunswick  3
 Manitoba  3
 Northwest Territories  0
 Nunavut  0

"To their credit, they agreed that it would be more proper to have the independent board develop a communications plan," he said.

PIAC is pushing for CCTS information to be added as an insert to every customer's bill, a move the carriers oppose.

"That's the one they always resist because they say it costs money," Lawford said.

McKendry said the CCTS should be fully up and running with its six full-time staff members, a promotional plan and full CRTC approval by the fall.

There is, however, still the thorny issue of recalcitrant telecommunications service providers. Of the companies required to join, only Shaw Communications Inc., Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc. and Globalive Communications Inc. — a company that is positioned to soon become Canada's fourth national cellphone carrier — have failed to do so. None of the three companies responded to requests for comment.

CRTC spokesman Denis Carmel said the regulator will not be able to force the companies to join unless a complaint is brought against them by the CCTS board. Even then, the CRTC lacks the ability to issue punitive fines to telecommunications companies that misbehave, a deficiency that chairman Konrad von Finckenstein has repeatedly urged the government to fix.

Existing members have also been critical of the CCTS. Rogers head of regulatory affairs, Ken Engelhart, in June called the agency "a waste of money." Over its first year, Rogers was saddled with a bill of $1,000 for each of the 400 complaints its customers had lodged, he said.

Engelhart said Rogers gets very few complaints, a view that isn't shared by consumer groups. Lawford said there is more than enough pent-up consumer dissatisfaction in Canada to eventually outstrip countries like Australia.

"I think we can get up to 100,000 in two or three years."