Telecom complaints agency finally going public

It's been two years since its formation and still only a few Canadians know there is an agency where they can take their internet and cellphone complaints, a fact the group promises will change over the next six months.

It's been two years since its formation, and still only a few Canadians know there is an agency where they can take their internet and cellphone complaints, a fact the group promises will change over the next six months.

The cumbersomely named Commission for Complaints for Telecommunications Services celebrated its second anniversary in July and is finally gearing up to roll out a publicity campaign over the remainder of this year.

The campaign, which aims to inform Canadians that they have a recourse in resolving disputes with telecommunications service providers, was supposed to have started last fall but was delayed because of difficulties in getting member companies to agree. Regulators require every major service provider — including Bell, Rogers, Telus, MTS Allstream, Shaw, Videotron and EastLink — to be a member of the CCTS.

"Trying to get a consensus among themselves and then coming back to us was kind of time consuming," says CCTS director Howard Maker. "Many of them have had, and likely still do have, reservations about the process and whether they should be required to participate in it — they've expressed that — but in the end they've said, 'Here we are and we are going to co-operate to make this work.'"

The publicity campaign will have several parts, including a new CCTS website and an electronic information brochure that will be provided to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, consumer groups and government services, including the offices of Members of Parliament.

Service providers such as Bell, Rogers and Telus will also be required to display CCTS information and contact details prominently on their websites and publish those same details on bills at least twice a year. The first such publication must happen before the end of January, Maker said. Information on the agency will also be published in white pages phone books. 

Complaints almost tripled

Despite its lack of public visibility, the CCTS still saw a large increase in the number of complaints it received. The agency was contacted about 17,000 times during its second year, up from 6,000 times in its first year. The number of complaints accepted for investigation, however, did not rise correspondingly — only about 3,000 cases versus 2,200 from a year earlier.

A CBC study last year found the CCTS was effective in resolving disputes when it accepted them for investigation, but getting that acceptance was not necessarily easy to do. Part of the difficulty stemmed from the CCTS's inability to accept complaints on services that are still regulated, which includes some aspects of home phones and internet connections.

Maker says the agency also refers many customers back to their provider when there is doubt about whether the company has had ample opportunity to resolve the complaint. Also, many customers contact the CCTS a number of times before lodging a complaint, which raises the discrepancy in case numbers.

The increased number of complaints has resulted in higher staffing levels with the CCTS now employing 15 full-time employees, up from six last year, with five case investigators.

The CCTS was formed in July, 2007 after a recommendation from then minister of industry Maxime Bernier. The industry-run agency was to act as a buffer for consumers from the wave of telecommunications deregulation ushered in by Bernier.

The agency is run by a board of seven directors, which includes members from both consumer groups and service providers, and is funded by the companies themselves, with each contributing based on their percentage of overall Canadian telecommunications revenue.

Consumer groups are cautiously optimistic about the CCTS progress so far, but lament how long it is taking to get the word out about its services.

"I get calls from members of Parliament about resolving telecommunications issues, and they're unaware of the CCTS," says Michael Janigan, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre. "They're on the frontline of constituent complaints, and they have a lack of knowledge about it."

The CRTC has ultimate oversight of the CCTS and has required all telecommunications providers with annual revenues exceeding $10 million to be members for at least three years. The regulator will conduct a review of the CCTS's efficacy at that point.

Janigan says it is obvious the CRTC will have to extend the mandatory membership period next year, given how long it has taken for the CCTS to get fully up and running.

"It's in no position to judge the effectiveness of popularity of it with consumers until there's been a chance to publicize it," he says.

The agency is also set to re-examine its funding system. Some of its members would prefer their share of funding be proportionate to the number of complaints they generate. Maker says the agency's board is about to begin that debate with members.

Consumers may also get more relief on Sept. 1, when cellphone providers roll out a "wireless code of conduct," a set of self-governing rules that will aim to head off complaints before they happen.