Canada’s new telecom complaints commissioner a peacemaker

The fledgling and relatively unknown not-for-profit body funded by the telecommunications industry to act as a fair arbitrator of complaints now has its first full-time commissioner.

Howard Maker is no stranger to hearing complaints.

The 49-year-old lawyer started his regulatory career with the Law Society of Upper Canada, later worked with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario, and most recently as Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments.

All of those roles involved investigating complaints, he says, and starting September 13 he’ll focus his attention on his new job as full-time commissioner with the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services Inc. (CCTS).

CCTS – its Web site says – is “a non-profit corporation funded by but completely independent of the Telecommunications Service Providers.”

And as the new full-time commissioner, it will be Maker’s role to investigate complaints – one he ready to take on with gusto.

“Complaints are what I do,” Maker says. “The role of an organization such as ours is not just to get individual complaints resolved, but [also] to provide value to the industry by sharing our data.”

CCTS was set up started up about a year ago when the CRTC directed telecom companies to create a neutral third party to handle complaints, shortly after the industry was deregulated.

Bell Canada, Rogers Communications, and Telus were among the first members. Up until now, a part-time commissioner – David McKendry – has dealt with complaints five days a month.

Critics have observed that very few Canadians are even aware of the existence of the CCTS and its mandate to investigate their complaints against telecom firms.

“We’ve committed publicly to putting a communications plan before our board of directors,” Maker says. “It’s been a point of some criticism.”

Nothing has been formalized for the communications plan yet, he adds. It has to be reviewed by the seven-member board. Members include representatives from Bell, Quebecor Media, and Distributel Communications. The other four seats are filled by bureaucrats.

But some analysts are concerned that telecoms don’t want to publicize the CCTS, and will hamstring the communications campaign with a low budget or ineffective strategy.

The last thing that these companies want is more regulation from an outside body, says John Lawford, research analyst with the Public Interact Advocacy Centre.

“It should be advertised on the bottom of every bill,” he says. “Because that’s when somebody does something – when they have the bill in front of them and they’re angry. That would be the most effective, but I’m sure they won’t suggest it.”

More likely is a small blurb placed on the Web sites of CCTS members, Lawford adds. But definitely not a mass media blitz that guarantees high-visibility for the agency.

Any television advertising is out of the picture, agrees Mark Tauschek, senior research analyst with London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group. Companies may hold back on funding the corporation because they would rather not deal with the extra complaints.

“They probably don’t really have enough money to get in the face of consumers,” he says. “A lot of people still won’t know that they’re there.”

Other commentators note that the board structure of the CCTS is not ideal.

It gives “too much weight to the telcos as compared with other similar bodies such as the Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments,” says Michael Geist, a professor of Internet and e-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa.

He says the “penalty powers are too low, and the body is voluntary rather than mandatory as recommended by the Telcom Policy Review panel.”

For its part, Telus welcomes the new commissioner and says it is a sign the CCTS is starting to make progress as an organization. The company supports the deregulation of the industry and recognizes this is an important piece to complete that puzzle, according to Telus spokesperson, Shawn Hall.

“We were obligated to fund them (CCTS) and obligated to help with the formation,” he says. “It’s a mandatory part of the deregulation and we need to give the commission a chance to do its work.”

The commission was contacted nearly 5,400 times by Canadians over its first year of operations, and 3,350 of those occasions were to file a complaint against a telecom provider.

But experts expect that number to climb exponentially once there is wider public awareness. For instance, the equivalent office in Australia deals with more than 100,000 complaints a year.

Canada should expect that volume within a few years, Lawford says.

“If there’s a third-party to talk to, I think people will appreciate having someone to even look at their complaints,” the analyst says.

But Maker himself doesn’t expect there will be a significant rise in complaints.

“In theory, greater public awareness may lead to a greater number of complaints,” he says. “But I don’t think that will be the case.”

The number of complaints may spike at first, when consumers first learn about the CCTS, he adds. But after that, companies will make internal changes so that repeated complaints are more easily resolved, or eliminated.

Info-Tech’s Tauschek, however, doesn’t believe the telecos will change their practices that quickly.

“I think it is a little bit optimistic,” Tauschek says. “The carriers would have to receive complaints in fairly large volumes to change any practices.”

Another challenge ahead for Maker is wooing those telecos that are dragging their feet on joining the Commission. For smaller companies, membership is voluntary, but for larger companies with revenues exceeding $10 million a year, the CRTC has made membership compulsory.

According to former commissioner David McKendry, current members of the CCTS are: Bell Aliant, Bell Canada, Cityfone, Cogeco Cable, Distributel, Eastlink, MTS Allstream, NorthwesTel, Northen Tel, Primus Telecommunications, Rogers Communications, Saskatchewan Telecommunications, Telebec, Telus, Videotron, Virgin Mobile Canada and Vonage Canada.

That leaves two companies that have yet to join. Globallive Communications, a big winner in the government’s recent wireless spectrum auction, and Shaw Communications.

“We’ve put the materials in their hands,” Maker says. “Certainly Shaw is a big player and we’d love to see them here.”

Previously, Shaw had said that it was waiting on legal documents to be finalized before agreeing to become a member. Now, the ball is in their court. But the CRTC might have to be called upon to force hold-outs to join, Lawford says.

He says he doesn’t believe the CCTS has the power to take punitive action against members. “What follow-up process is to make them join?”

Customer pressure could also make Shaw join the CCTS, he says. Customers may become upset if they can’t file a complaint with the CCTS and have it dealt with.

For now the new commissioner will have to work out some kinks at the commission, McKendry says. Currently in a temporary office, a permanent office space is needed. The commission’s budget also is being worked out for presentation to the board.

But Maker’s background as a lawyer should be helpful in his new role, the former commissioner says.

“It’s a big advantage that I didn’t’ have,” he says. “I had to call on legal advice to help me make my decisions.”

After that, it will be on to creating a communications plan. That plan will be put into action come the new year, Maker says.

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