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With the advent of competition in telecommunications in Canada, many aspects of the regulatory framework are evolving. As existing services become unregulated, and new services are never regulated at all, new consumer issues arise. For a regulated service, if customers cannot satisfactorily resolve a dispute with a service provider, there is recourse to the regulatory agency. For an unregulated service, generally the only recourse is switching to a new service provider. Unfortunately, this is not always easy, and in any case may not address past problems. Recourse to the courts, while possible, is expensive and often unsatisfactory from a user perspective.
In principle, competitive forces, if sufficiently vigorous, will provide incentives for service providers to be responsive to customers. However, in practice, handling of complaints can be complicated, especially in a large company. Competition, while intense enough to keep prices and terms of service reasonable, may not suffice to take care of individual customer problems. As a result, many industries have set up independent ombudsmen to deal with individual customer complaints.
This paper reviews different models for an industry ombudsman. A number of viable options are available, ranging from no ombudsman to a far-reaching government-mandated and controlled office. Given the current regulatory framework in Canada, the paper concludes, a mandatory ombudsman would be the best solution. All telecommunications service providers would be required to participate.
The ombudsman’s office should be a not-for-profit organization, funded by participating service providers and subject to general government guidelines. In all other respects it should be independent of both industry and government. The ombudsman should have jurisdiction over wire-line and wireless telecommunications, as well as Internet access and voice services (VoIP), where internal conflict resolution has been tried and failed, and where other administrative bodies do not have jurisdiction.
The ombudsman should have discretion to refer a complainant to a regulator or the courts if in its judgment that is a more appropriate or convenient avenue to pursue. For individual disputes, the ombudsman should first try to mediate a voluntary resolution to the dispute. If that fails, it should issue a recommended resolution. This will become binding on both supplier and complainant if the complainant accepts; otherwise, it will bind neither party. Recommended resolutions should include an explanation or apology, an action by the service provider, and compensation for actual damages up to a maximum of $1,000.
PIAC Report: Telecommuncations Ombudsman for Canada
Please see also the Telecommunications Policy Review Panel – Final Report 2006 , which largely adopted the conclusions of this paper in Chapter 6 .