Recently, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) released survey data indicating only 2% of survey respondents who thought they had options could identify the CCTS as a recourse avenue if they experienced an unresolved compliant with their communication service provider. These services include home phone, wireless service, home internet or cable and satellite television service. The same survey data indicates 20% of respondents have heard of the CCTS. While it would be simple to blame the hard-working staff at the CCTS for this lack of awareness, it would also be unfair. Clearly, there is more to this low level of public awareness of the CCTS than meets the eye. PIAC would like to take a moment to partially unravel this unfortunate mystery.
Shortly after the CCTS was established, a public awareness plan was put in place committing participating telecommunications service providers to undertaking activities to ensure customers were made aware of CCTS and the independent dispute resolution service they offer. In 2012, the plan was amended and currently includes the following undertakings by service providers:
- Service providers are required to place on their web sites a notice about CCTS and a link to the CCTS web site.
- Service providers are required to place notices about CCTS on customers’ bills four times per year. They are also required to provide notice to customers who do not receive bills, such as pre-paid wireless customers.
- Service providers are required to notify the customer about the right of recourse to CCTS following the second level of escalation in the company’s complaints process.
According to the CCTS, the awareness plan is built on the strategy of ensuring information about CCTS is readily available to customers at the time they experience a problem. PIAC has previously been critical of this approach, stating part of the role of the CCTS is to promote to the public at large that an avenue is present for Canadians with unresolved telecommunications service issues. Quite simply, if more Canadians knew the CCTS existed, the CCTS would be more effective in fulfilling its mandate to assist those Canadians with unresolved complaints.
However, at the present time, the task of promoting the CCTS falls to participating telecommunications service providers. The job of Rogers, Bell, TELUS et al. is to provide notices on their websites about the CCTS, place notices on their bills 4 times a year and notify their customers if a complaint remains unresolved after review, among other activities. But who makes sure this happens? Does it happen?
The CCTS has noted publicly it does not have the mandate or the resources to do formal auditing of compliance with aspects of its public awareness plan. However, according to unofficial data collected by the CCTS and submitted to the CRTC in 2015, there is evidence service providers may not be very diligent in their promotion of the CCTS.
For instance, CCTS sent compliance surveys to 133 participating telecommunications service providers (PSPs) and received 47 replies, for a response rate of 35%. With those 47 replies, this is what was found:
- 38 of 47 respondents have web sites that contain the required notice and link, and the text of the notice as required. This is a compliance rate of 81% of respondents.
- However, the CCTS Public Awareness Plan also requires that if a PSP’s web site has a search function, seven prescribed terms (“complaint”, “dispute”, “agency”, “CRTC”, “CCTS”, “commission” and “ombudsman”) should return a link to the page with the CCTS notice and web site link. Only 2/26 were actually fully compliant (i.e. all seven search terms returned the CCTS web page). This is a compliance rate of 8% of respondents.
- 31 of 47 of respondents self-report that they are compliant with the requirement to place notices about CCTS on customers’ bills four times per year, a compliance rate of 66% of respondents.
- 7 of 20 respondents reported compliance with having a process for delivering notices about CCTS to customers not receiving a monthly bill.
- CCTS considers customer notification during a complaint process the most important feature of the Public Awareness Plan, yet admits the CCTS has no real ability to monitor PSP compliance with this provision. CCTS concluded that 15 or 47 respondents report a customer notification process that appears to be compliant with the Plan. This is a compliance rate of 32% of respondents.
In our view, the argument of the CCTS – that awareness of its existence is readily available to customers at the time when they need it – is only viable if service providers are diligent in providing the information. However, it is clear not all telecommunications service providers are fulfilling their obligations to the CCTS or to Canadians.
As an outside observer, this begs a number of questions:
- Does the CCTS intend to measure the compliance of service providers going forward?
- At what point is the CRTC partially responsible for allowing this chronic non-compliance with the CCTS participation agreement?
- Will the CRTC provide the deterrents required to ensure telecommunications service providers fulfill their public awareness obligations regarding the CCTS?
PIAC believes that until a substantial proportion of the Canadian public is aware the CCTS exists, attempting to determine its effectiveness in fulfilling its mandate remains elusive. The degree of public awareness of the CCTS is crucial to its effectiveness—consumers will not seek recourse with the CCTS if they are not aware that it exists or of how it might help them.
Thus far, the blame for a low number of Canadians being aware of the CCTS as a recourse avenue can be fairly placed equally at the feet of the CCTS, Canada’s telecommunications service providers and the CRTC. However, it does not have to remain this way. The CCTS can routinely monitor service provider compliance with the elements of their public awareness plan outlined above, as they did in 2015. The service providers can simply do what they have agreed to do, and do it better. Meanwhile, the CRTC could be imposing enforcement deterrents for those instances where service provider non-compliance of the CCTS has become habitual.
For PIAC, ensuring more consumers are aware there’s a way to resolve their communications complaints is the objective. Taking action to ensure Canada’s telecommunication service providers fulfill their awareness obligations consistently would be an ideal first step.
Jonathan Bishop is a Research Analyst with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC)