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Major Parties Asked to Support Consumer Rights in Telecommunications

Ottawa – A coalition of consumers groups from across Canada today (Sept. 29, 2008) asked that each of the five major parties take a stand on consumer protection in Canada’s telecommunications sector.

The coalition composed of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (“PIAC”), the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC), the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO), Option Consommateurs (OC), Consumers Council of Canada (CCC), asked each of the five major political parties contesting the federal election to outline their positions on specific measures to ensure that the benefits of competition in telecommunications are delivered to Canadian consumers and businesses.

“Over the past few years, successive Canadian governments have quietly adopted a policy of deregulation for the sake of deregulation in telecommunications markets,” said Michael Janigan, Executive Director of PIAC. “Increasingly, the onus has been placed on individual consumers to police and pursue instances of abuse of market power by telephone and cable companies. We are concerned that the interests of Canadian consumers are systematically being overlooked in Canada’s telecommunications markets. “

Many wireline telecom markets in Canada and in particular, local and broadband services markets, continue to be dominated by a single incumbent telephone company or, in the case of the residential market for high speed Internet services, a duopoly. Three providers dominate the wireless market. The negative effects of the lack of competition have recently been quantified and documented in a number of international studies, which show that Canada’s early lead in the broadband services segment of the telecom market has been squandered, and that Canadians pay some of the highest mobile wireless rates among western countries.

“Telecommunications and broadband access in particular is critically important to the social and economic fabric of this country”, said Philippa Lawson, Executive Director of CIPPIC. “Canadians deserve lower prices, fair terms of service, and better quality of service. We don’t see enough of these benefits being delivered to consumers by the existing players. Instead, we see market consolidation, continued high prices, unfair practices, and a degradation of service quality especially for voice services. We are concerned that the Government of Canada is not doing enough to correct this state of affairs. We think that Canadians are entitled to know the positions of the major political parties on policies that are important to the economic and social well-being of Canadians.”

For a copy of the Coalition’s questionnaire and more information, go to [www.piac.ca or www.cippic.ca under “Telecommunications Policy Questionnaire.”] The Coalition has asked each of the five major political parties to complete the questionnaire by noon on Wednesday, October 8, 2008. All responses and the Consumer Groups’ reaction will be made public on Friday, October 10, 2008.
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TELECOMMUNICATIONS POLICY QUESTIONNAIRE

In accordance with the principles set out in section 7 of the Telecommunications Act, telecommunications performs an essential role in the enhancement of Canada’s efficiency and competitiveness and must respond to the economic and social requirements of Canadians.

Yet, many wireline telecom markets in Canada and, in particular, local and broadband services markets, continue to be dominated by a single incumbent telephone company (ILEC) or in the case of the residential market for high speed Internet services, a cable/ILEC duopoly.

The negative effects of the lack of competition in Canadian telecommunications markets have recently been quantified and documented by a number of international studies, which show that Canada’s early lead in the broadband services segment of the telecom market has been squandered.

On the wireless side, Canada’s mobile wireless market continues to be dominated by an oligopoly of three incumbent mobile wireless operators. The Big 3 continue to earn supra-competitive profits, rates of innovation are far slower than elsewhere in the world, wireless penetration rates in Canada continue to lag behind those of other OECD countries and Canadians pay some of the highest mobile wireless rates among western countries surveyed.

A coalition of consumer groups engaged in telecommunications issues on behalf of ordinary customers believes that it is important for Canadians to know what telecommunications policies the [Conservative/Liberal/New Democratic/Green/Bloc Quebecois] Party [of Canada] will pursue in the next Parliament. Specifically:

Question 1

Complaints about telecommunications services are on the rise. Three class action law suits are currently underway regarding system access fees, late payment charges, and the use of “traffic shaping” technologies to filter out and delay the delivery of certain types of broadband traffic. The Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services was recently created to handle complaints regarding deregulated services, but its mandate is extremely narrow and its powers to order redress are very limited.

Q1 – Is it fair to place on consumers of telecommunications services the responsibility and financial burden of policing and pursuing in the courts and elsewhere anti-competitive, price-gouging, and other unfair practices of telecommunications firms? If not, how does your party intend to reverse the current situation that places this onus on consumers?

Question 2

Last spring, Senator Oliver introduced Bill S-242, An Act to Amend the Telecommunications Act. This Bill would give the CRTC clear powers to establish and operate an independent agency to handle consumer complaints about telecom services. It would therefore resolve outstanding jurisdictional issues that have plagued the new agency, and would give the CRTC and the new agency the powers they need to handle consumer telecom complaints effectively.

Q2 – Will your party support Senator Oliver’s bill if it is re-introduced?

Question 2

Under the policy direction from former Industry Minister Maxime Bernier, the CRTC has been directed to make deregulation a priority and puts the onus on stakeholders to prove that consumer protection is a priority. Would you support restoring consumer protection as the priority concern and make stakeholders prove that is not needed?

Q2 – What is your party’s response to recent actions by the CRTC to further deregulate telecom markets? Is the CRTC doing enough to protect the interests of consumers?

Question 3

It has recently come to light that Bell Canada and several large cable companies are “throttling” peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic in order apparently to ease congestion on their networks. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has found that similar “traffic shaping” practices of a U.S. ISP were discriminatory, arbitrary and anticompetitive practices and do not constitute reasonable network management.”

Q3a – Does your party stand behind the principle of net neutrality, namely that a telecommunications carrier must not discriminate against or interfere with the traffic traversing its network on the basis of the traffic’s nature, content, origin or destination? What specific policy proposals would your party pursue to enforce and protect net neutrality?

Q3b – What is your party’s position on traffic shaping practices of Canadian ISPs? If elected, what actions would your party take in response to these practices?

We thank you sincerely for taking the time to fill out the questionnaire, and we ask that the completed document be returned to the undersigned no later than noon on Wednesday, October 8, 2008. Responses from all five major parties, and the consumer groups’ reaction, will be made public.

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