The independent body that listens to Canadians’ complaints about their phone bills is close to widely advertising its existence, while already attracting more requests from consumers.
The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services was set up in 2007 and funded by the telecommunications industry. Last summer it gained its first full-time commissioner in Howard Maker, the former Ombudsman for Banking Services and Investments.
“This organization was as much a concept as it was a reality when I joined,” he says. “We’re trying to get to the next level.”
He said his office has witnessed a nearly three-fold increase in the number of complaints it has fielded since its first annual report was filed last October. In its first full year of operation, the office heard more than 3,300 complaints.
“In November and December, we were averaging 1,500 complaints per month,” he says. “We’ve beefed up our customer care and our staffing levels on the investigative side.”
The increase comes despite the lack of wider public awareness about the existence of the CCTS. Critics have argued a wider effort needs to be made to inform Canadians that when their phone provider lets them down, there is someone else to talk to.
“Anecdotal evidence shows people don’t really know that this thing exists,” says John Lawford, a research analyst with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa (PIAC). “They probably don’t want 100,000 hits on this, so they’re holding back a bit. It’s not in the phone book.”
But a communications plan is in the works. The body has been consulting with consumer advocacy groups (including PIAC) and plans to table a plan before its board members in March, Maker says.
“We certainly put a significant number in the budget for the communications plan,” he says. “You can guess at what some of the things we might want to do are.”
Plans haven’t been finalized yet, but Maker said the focus will likely be on using the Web and consumer phone bills to spread awareness about the commission.
The CCTS Web site will be re-vamped to be more attractive and informative. It will also allow consumers to safely upload documents in an encrypted format – so they can submit the phone bill in question. The site will also be linked to member companies.
At least one member organization is willing to add a link to the CCTS from its home page. Calgary-based Telus Corp. would add such a link similar to its link to the CRTC it currently provides, says spokesperson Shawn Hall.
Advertising for the CCTS should also be added at the bottom of every phone bill from member companies, Lawford says. “It would be simple to print it at the bottom of each bill,” he says. “But that space is used for advertising, so there might be some resistance.”
For Telus, that would also be doable, Hall says. “What you’d see is short messages on paper bills and links for online bills.”
But no traditional media campaign is planned to advertise the commission. Such a campaign would be expensive, Maker says. In addition, it wouldn’t necessarily be an effective way to inform people about the CCTS. People should be informed when they need to use such a service, not when they’re reading the morning newspaper.
“People need to find out about us when they have a problem,” he says. “I don’t see us advertising in the mass media to any extent.”
The Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered that the CCTS be created after the industry was deregulated. In lieu of having governmental oversight, the industry is to fund this public service that acts as a mediator between consumers and the phone companies. The body is answerable to the CRTC.
Its board members include representatives from Bell Canada, Quebecor Media, and Distributor Communications. Another four seats are filled by public policy experts.
Any telecommunications company in Canada that earns $10 million in revenue from its services must join the body, as directed by the CRTC. The three most recent members are Shaw, joining Sept.9, Atria Networks joining Oct. 21 and Yak Communications joining Nov.4.
“It’s a good sign that [Maker’s] had some persuasive effect,” Lawford says. “Because I know [Shaw] was rather against it.”
There is still at least one more company that has committed to becoming a member, Maker says. “But I’m not in a position to tell you who it is.”
Here’s a complete list of the companies who are members of the CCTS so far:
- Atira Networks
- Bell Aliant Regional Communications LP
- Bell Canada
- Cogeco Cable Canada Inc.
- Distributel Communications
- MTS Allstream Inc.
- NorthwesTel Inc.
- Northern Tel
- Primus Telecommunications Canada Inc.
- Rogers Communications Inc.
- Saskatchewan Telecommunications
- Telus Communications
- Videotron Ltd.
- Vonage Canada Corporation
- Yak Communications Corp.