Unhappy with your phone company? Here’s what you do…

Many Canadians don’t know there’s an independent arbitrator whose job it is to help them resolve grievances against their telephone (wireline or wireless) and Internet service providers.

That seems unusual given that the aribitrator in question – The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS)– has been around for a year.

CCTS celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this week.

But this pervasive lack-of-awareness about the office and its role might be about to change – as will the role itself.

The current commissioner – David McKendry – is temporary, and works with the office five days a month. Now, after a year of sorting out bureaucratic technicalities, CCTS is ready to appoint its first full-time commissioner and launch a public-awareness campaign.

The most common complaints received by the CCTS.

The commission marked its first birthday on Monday with the third meeting of its independent board. McKendry says there will soon be a full-time commissioner to take his place.

“I’m expecting that to happen soon,” he says, adding that he’s not involved in the hiring process at all.

The CCTS was formed shortly after the federal government directed the CRTC to deregulate local wireline services.

The government also required companies affected by the deregulation to set up an independent body that would address consumer and small business complaints.

The commission’s mandate is to receive complaints from these groups, and attempt to resolve them with telecom companies.

But many companies that are now members of the commission have only joined in the past six months, notes John Lawford, research analyst with Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa.

And several companies only came on board after the CRTC made it mandatory for them to do so.

Membership with the commission is voluntary for telecom companies, but is required by the CRTC if a firm earns more than $10 million in revenues annually.

But there are still many companies holding out from membership despite the requirement, Lawford says. The current excuse is that CCTS hasn’t finished adjusting its legal documentation.

“[The companies] didn’t like being told they had to join,” the lawyer says. “They tried to make CRTC reverse the decision making it mandatory.

“CRTC is screaming at them to join,” Lawford adds.

CRTC also requires the commission to come up with a plan to boost awareness among Canadians, something that hasn’t happened yet, McKendry acknowledges.

“I don’t think CCTS is widely known,” he says. “We were waiting until the independent board of the company came together.”

In its first year of listening to complaints from harried telecom customers, the commission received 3,349 complaints, and was contacted 5,391 times by Canadians.

To put that in perspective, a similar ombudsman for the telecommunications industry exists in Australia – and that office receives more than 100,000 complaints a year.

But the number of complaints to CCTS number is expected to skyrocket once more Canadians become aware of the service.

“As the volume grows, CCTS may have to hire more staff,” McKendry says. “There’s no cap on how big it can be, it can grow or it can shrink.” The office has already grown from the commssioner and one staff member to six employees.

McKendry predicts CCTS will be “wildly popular” once more Canadians realize “they have someone to talk to beside their telecom provider about complaints.”

He says some Canadians were notified of his office’s existence via an insert with their phone bill, when their city became deregulated.

“Whenever a city was deregulated and those billing inserts went out, there was always a spike of complaints,” the commssioner says.

CRTC has also been directing Canadians to the complaints commissioner.

CCTS has enjoyed success in resolving 90 per cent of complaints received by simply referring them to the company involved. The commissioner made 22 recommendations, 17 of which were accepted, and issued only one binding decision.

The service is provided at no cost to consumers or small business and acts objectively. The commissioner will intervene when the customer and the company can’t work out an issue on their own.

Complaints received cover a wide scope. Complainants can address problems with their phone service, long distance, wireless, or Internet. Topics covered include billing, service delivery, credit management, unauthorized transfer of service, and contract compliance.

Billing-related complaints were the number one topic heard by the commission over its first year, according to a CCTS report. They accounted for about one in five complaints.

Contract issues were the next most common complaint at 16 per cent of all comments received.

Commission members will soon be inclined to avoid complaints by fees, McKendry says. Over its first year, members just paid a fixed share of their revenues as a result of deregulation. But the goal for this year is to switch to a fee-per-complaint system.

“Companies that have a lot of complaints will pay more than companies that don’t,” McKendry says. “It’s an incentive and ensures a company with good service isn’t subsidizing a company with bad service.”

Fees will be less for companies that quickly resolve issues with a customer, McKendry says. But fees would be higher if the commissioner had to get more involved in a resolution.

Complaints must be made in writing and can be submitted via a Web form, or by fax and mail.

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