Technology & Science

Diary of a telecom complaint

A special first-hand look at how the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services deals with customer disputes.

How effective is the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services at resolving disputes? It's a mixed bag, according to our case study

Ever wondered how a complaint with the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services is resolved? Ever wonder what the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services is? You're not alone.

Even though it was formed in the summer of 2007, few Canadians today know there is an agency where they can take their complaints over cellphone and internet services.

Internet providers say throttling connections is within their network management rights and not a breach of their contracted terms of service. ((Matt Rourke/Associated Press))
The CCTS was set up to protect consumers in the wake of deregulation of the industry and a subsequent declawing of the Canadian Radio-television and Television Commission. It continues to be an obscure organization, largely because a promotional campaign, demanded months ago by the CRTC, has yet to materialize.

It has also taken heat from those who are actually aware of its existence because it is funded and partly run by the telecommunications service providers themselves.

Every company earning more than $10 million a year in revenue is required to be a member of the CCTS, which is governed by a seven-member board — three of which come from the industry. As such, there have been suggestions that the agency is ineffectual.

How effective is the CCTS? In its first year, it fielded 5,000 inquiries, with less than half accepted as matters for investigations. Australia's comparable and well-publicized agency, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, handled 100,000 complaints over the same time in a country two-thirds the size of Canada.

To assess the CCTS, embarked on a first-hand investigation of its complaint resolution process. We took the controversial issue of internet throttling by certain service providers to the agency to see how it would deal with the case. What follows is the author's first-hand diary of a telecommunications complaint.

The background

May 2007

I sign up for a bundle of internet and television with a service provider under a two-year contract. The internet service with unlimited downloading costs $46 and TV costs $54, but with a $5 bundle discount the monthly charge come to $95 before tax. The two-year contract also means the installation charges on both services are waived.

October 2007

Everything is fine for the first few months until the October bill arrives and I notice the internet cost has gone up by a few dollars. I call customer service and deal with an extraordinarily pleasant woman who tells me I'm paying too much and offers to lower the price to $35 a month. How can I refuse such a generous offer?

March 2008

The news breaks that some internet providers — including Bell Canada, Rogers Communications and Shaw Communications — are throttling the speeds of customers using peer-to-peer software such as BitTorrent. The companies only disclose the practice after some smaller wholesale customers complain. As a news story, this is important because it involves a potential violation of net neutrality. On a personal level, I don't think too much of it because I don't use BitTorrent.

August 2008

After noticing some deterioration in my Skype connection, which uses peer-to-peer software, I decide to address the throttling issue with my service provider. I argue that the slow-down is a material change to my service and thus a violation of the two-year contract I signed, so it should be discontinued.

The customer service representative refuses to oblige and also tells me that I was moved onto a download cap of 60 gigabytes a month when I accepted the lower-priced service back in October. Since that change also happened without my knowledge or consent, I ask the representative to put me back on the plan I originally signed up for.

No dice there, I'm told, since that plan no longer exists. It's worth noting that my monthly usage is about five gigabytes and nowhere near the 60-GB limit. Still, I decide to pursue the issue on principle.

The complaint

September 2008

With no satisfaction forthcoming, I take the matter to the CCTS and place a complaint on its website on Sept. 5, making the same argument I gave the company: that the throttling and change in download limits are both violations of my two-year contract.

I ask for one of three possible solutions: an immediate end to the throttling and a reinstatement of unlimited downloading; an 80 per cent reduction in my monthly service fee (a figure I grabbed from the class-action lawsuit launched in regards to throttling); or the cancellation of the service with no penalties or fees.

I stress that the company is free to throttle or change my service however it sees fit, but not in the middle of a contract.

The CCTS takes complaints on unregulated services, such as cellphones. ((Manu Fernandez/Associated Press))
On Sept. 8, the CCTS replies and rejects my complaint because it says it involves issues with "general business practices," which the agency does not deal with. I reply and counter that my complaint is in regard to a contractual agreement, provision of service and billing, all of which fall under the CCTS mandate.

The CCTS replies on Sept. 9 asking for a copy of my contract. Since I only have a printed copy, I type out the relevant sections that detail the nature of the "high-speed" connection and unlimited downloading, as well as the clauses that allow the company to make changes to the service.

Those clauses say the company can make any changes it wants to the service, but that it will notify users of those changes via e-mail. I point out that I didn't get an e-mail notification for either change.

On Sept. 11, I get a call from a my service provider's executive office to discuss my complaint. On the unlimited downloading issue, the executive admits the company goofed and it should have told me of the change. But, he says, I've never gone over my limit, so the point is moot.

On the issue of throttling, he tells me it's a network management decision designed to ensure equal access to all customers, so the company is within its rights to change the terms of service.

Knowing he likely won't grant either of the first two resolutions I had requested, we concentrate on the third — cancellation. The catch here is that I ask for the $5 bundle discount to be continued because if I don't keep getting it, the price of my television service will effectively go up, which is effectively a penalty for cancelling the internet access.

The official counters with a mind-boggling solution: He suggests retroactively charging me for the cost of the internet service as if I didn't have a contract for the past year, a fee that would come to more than $120. It would be smarter, he says, to simply pay the $100 cancellation charge. Agreeing to disagree on whether this suggestion can be considered good customer service, we take the matter back to the CCTS.

I e-mail the agency and ask for an escalation of the complaint to the commissioner, who must now make a non-binding decision. The next step after that, if both parties can't agree to the prescribed resolution, would be a binding decision.

After several follow-up e-mails inquiring about the complaint's status, the CCTS replies on Sept. 30 to tell me it has been reviewed, but more details are needed. Specifically, the agency wants to know the "details of your complaint, such as the services or products in question, the particular dates on which the matters complained of occurred or were brought to your attention, as well as the following: For contract disputes, the particular aspect of the contract or applicable service terms which your telecommunications service provider is not honouring."

The runaround

Neither the CRTC nor the CCTS handle complaints over television services, leaving consumers at the mercy of service providers. ((Matt Rourke/Associated Press))
October 2008

A full month of back-and-forth and we are back to square one. I reiterate the entire complaint, which the CCTS finally officially accepts as a case on Oct. 7. I'm told my complaint has been forwarded to the company, which now has 20 business days to resolve the issue with me.

On Oct. 15, another company executive contacts me and we essentially replay the call of Sept. 11, complete with the same non-conclusion. I do glean one extra bit of information from this call — apparently by accepting the offer of cheaper internet access back in Oct. 2007, I somehow implicitly agreed to a new, three-year contract for the service. Back to the CCTS we go.

I get an e-mail on Oct. 16 from the agency saying the complaint is finally going to the non-binding decision stage.

November 2008

Heading into the third month of my complaint, it's looking like the CCTS is trying to avoid making a decision. That suspicion is confirmed when, after several e-mails inquiring about my complaint's status, the CCTS finally replies on Nov. 18 to tell me of a new settlement offer from the service provider.

The company is now offering to cancel my internet service with no penalties, plus a $50 credit to be applied immediately.

Given that the credit works out to be more than I would get if the $5 bundle discount were continued to the end of my contract in May 2009, it seems like a good deal — especially after almost three months of fighting the matter. After getting clear, written assurances from the company that there will be no penalties or fees following my internet cancellation, I accept the deal and ask for the service to be disconnected on Dec. 8.

December 2008

Four months after I tried to settle the issue with the company and three months after complaining to the CCTS, I finally get my service cancelled. I'm now happily up and running with another internet provider and found everything to be in order on my latest bill, which from here on in will only be for television service.

Then I get a notice from the company telling me the price of TV is going up by $4 — yet another change in my contracted service. The CCTS, however, doesn't handle television services and the company tells me to go fly a kite when I complain.

My only options are to swallow the price increase, cut back on the number of channels I get or cancel the service and pay early cancellation fees. I do somewhat regret not rejecting the company's deal to see how long it would have taken the CCTS to actually make a ruling on the complaint.

The conclusions

In the end, I was happy with the end result — I got an early cancellation of my internet service with no penalties. I was very disappointed, however, with how long it took and the bureaucratic runarounds of the CCTS.

If there are lessons the average person can learn from this particular case, they are:

  • Consumers should be wary of signing contracts with big telecommunications service providers, because the terms can and will change.
  • As such, though contracts can afford short-term savings, in the long run they are likely to be more grief than they're worth.
  • Customers should also be wary of seemingly sweet offers as they can be and are used to move customers off of older plans that potentially provided better value.
  • The CCTS seems inclined to initially reject complaints and accepts them only after making the complainant jump through hoops. It also seems averse to escalating complaints to the decision-making stage.
  • A complaint with the agency, if accepted, is an excellent way of getting someone with authority from the service provider to contact you.
  • It is a good idea to document every step of the complaint process, whether through saved e-mails or recorded phone conversations (it is legal to record phone calls in Canada if at least one party knows the recording is happening). CCTS staff should be CC'd on e-mails exchanged with the service provider.
  • If you are willing to put up a fight and go through the hassle, the CCTS can help get your problem resolved.

In the end, while a self-run body like the CCTS helps, it appears that Canadian consumers need stronger protection through regulation or a code of conduct to spell out what contract terms service providers can and can't change.