Technology & Science

Service providers must beware informed consumers

Customers are getting more demanding because of online advocacy, Scott Brison says

Customers are getting smarter and more demanding, Scott Brison says

Deregulation may be the name of the game when it comes to telecommunications in Canada, but the people who are supposed to be looking out for the little guy have been hung out to dry, according to the Liberals' Scott Brison.

The 41-year-old Brison, MP for Kings-Hants in Nova Scotia, says the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission and the Competition Bureau are "anemic." The recently formed Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, meanwhile, is too weak to do any good. That's not a good situation, he says, especially since consumers are now more informed than ever thanks to the spread of information over the internet.

Brison began his parliamentary career with the Progressive Conservatives, where he became the party's first openly gay MP. He crossed the floor to sit with the Liberals shortly after his old party joined with the Canadian Alliance in 2003, citing concerns that the new entity would be more socially conservative. Brison was re-elected as a Liberal a year later and named minister of public works and government services, becoming the first openly gay cabinet member. In 2006, he ran for the leadership of the Liberal party but bowed out after the first round of voting and threw his support behind Bob Rae.

Brison is now the industry critic, the Liberals' counterpoint to Minister of Industry Jim Prentice. He discussed with the growing consumer discontent with providers of telecommunications services. In July, you told us that Jim Prentice was "grandstanding" by opposing new charges for incoming text messages introduced by Bell and Telus and that he would inevitably take no action. Do you feel the urge to say "I told you so" now?

Brison: I don't think I have to (laughs). You've already told your audience that. The fact is, Minister Prentice referred to the telcos' decision to charge for incoming text messages as an "ill-thought-out decision," but his response was an ill-thought-out response. It was grandstanding. It was the same as [Finance] Minister [Jim] Flaherty on bank fees.

This is a government that likes to make noise as opposed to take action. It was an irresponsible act by the minister of industry, because in the end, he did absolutely nothing. He met with the companies, [but] he had no power to stop them. They simply ignored him, and the minister, frankly, has come out of this looking extremely feeble. What should have happened is before going public and grandstanding, the minister should have met with the telco companies and engaged in a constructive dialogue knowing more clearly what he could and could not do. But it appeared he didn't even understand what the limitations of his power might be. Customers seem to be extraordinarily upset with their telecommunications providers as of late. How would you characterize the state of the market?

Brison: There does seem to be more public engagement and discussion [on] telco issues over the last year or so. It ranges ... from fees to quality of service. We've seen the issue of net neutrality and throttling. These issues are not going to go away. Consumers are becoming more engaged and more informed and, as a result, more demanding. It's going to be important for Canadian telco providers to be responsive to that growing demand by consumers.

The wireless spectrum auction, which resulted in a $4.3 billion windfall for the government — $2.8 billion more than what was initially predicted — at least $2 billion of that ... ought to be invested in national broadband and high-speed internet infrastructure to help connect the 20 per cent of Canadians who live in rural and small-town Canada.

Since I made that statement a few weeks ago, our office has received calls from across the country offering support. It's very difficult to build a knowledge-based business in a community without high-speed internet. Rural and small-town Canada already face a number of challenges. This is one the government could help to deal with and address. Okay, but getting back to consumer discontent, there are lots of lawsuits and protests happening. It's been suggested this is result of deregulation without suitable consumer protection to offset the effects. Is that the case?

Brison: Clearly, consumers are expressing their concerns. Consumers are able to communicate with each other more than ever before, and part of the pro-consumer movement over the past couple of months and recent years has resulted from online communities dealing with these issues. People like [University of Ottawa professor] Michael Geist ... have been very vocal and quite effective in communicating [their] message. You can agree or disagree with what he has to say, but he has been extremely effective in communicating his message and building support for his positions. But what about deregulation? Is the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS), recommended in 2006 by a Liberal-appointed review panel and put in place by the Conservatives last year, enough to protect consumers?

Brison: Ultimately, one of the goals of deregulation will be more competition that will lead to better services and better prices. That could be the result, but it's premature to say it will be the result. Deregulation can sometimes lead to prices getting closer to the cost of providing the services. So what can happen is people in rural and small towns … can end up paying more, and that's certainly a concern, and the government hasn't paid attention to that.

I do think there needs to be commensurate strengthening of the CCTS. There's a real concern that the agency doesn't have the resources or it has not been effectively reformed to meet the new challenges. The government has followed part of the Telecommunications Review Panel's recommendations but not all of them. I have great concern for where pricing is going to go for rural and small-town Canada with these essential telecom services. Was it a good idea to abolish the minister of consumer affairs position? Is there anyone within cabinet right now who speaks for consumers?

Brison: We're seeing that — not just in telecommunications but across industries — it could make sense to bring back that role. The minister of industry ought to be more focused on building a competitive environment for Canadian industry. This minister clearly is not when he's distracted by grandstanding on text messages. There'd be a greater clarity and possibly greater efficacy if there were a separate minister for consumer affairs. How would you rate the track records of the CRTC and the Competition Bureau?

Brison: We've heard from the industry committee that there are significant deficiencies in both and that they don't have a great understanding of the Canadian telco and communications business, or I should say, the global business. I don't want to judge them on a case-by-case basis, but I think there needs to be a beefing up of their capacity. Their efforts and results right now are anemic. You've said in the past that you're not necessarily opposed to lifting foreign ownership restrictions on telecommunications firms, but it's complicated because many telecom providers are also now broadcasters. What kind of rules would need to be put in place to require foreign owners to continue delivering Canadian broadcast content?

Brison: Eliminating foreign ownership restrictions is something we ought to do in full engagement and discussion with Canadians. It's quite a significant decision and one that Canadians will have important opinions on, and [they] deserve to be heard. There's a lot of unintended consequences. If you're going to eliminate foreign ownership rules, there are other measures that need to take place either concurrently or previously in order to strengthen Canadian content and ensure Canadian artists have an opportunity to continue to develop and be successful here and globally. What needs to be done to ultimately ameliorate much of this consumer discontent?

Brison: The government has to be more open with Canadians and engage in meaningful dialogue and not just ignore the growing consumerism. Informed, educated and demanding consumers are important to the Canadian economy. The government ought to be providing better information more quickly to Canadian consumers. Ultimately, consumers demanding better value for their dollars can help strengthen Canadian companies. Competition is ultimately good for business. Your colleague David McGuinty has tabled a private member's bill seeking greater transparency on services from telecommunications providers. Why did that bill not come from you?

Brison: I commend him for having taking it on. It's also a consumer affairs issue. Yes, in some ways, it's an industry issue, but Dan McTeague is our consumer affairs critic, so I actually view it as more in his purview. On the industry side, I tend to focus more on competitiveness issues and industrial strategy issues. Dan typically handles consumer issues, and I believe he's had some discussions with David on this. We've got a smart caucus brimming with ideas so no one has a monopoly on this.