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Report on Business Telecom complaints rise as gripes about Cogeco, Freedom Mobile soar

The fast pace of growth at Freedom Mobile has contributed to a spike in customers complaining about the regional wireless provider to Canada’s telecom ombudsman.

The federal Commissioner for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS) published a midyear report Tuesday that showed complaints about Shaw Communications Inc.'s Freedom Mobile more than doubled to 637, up from 296 in the same period a year earlier (the midyear report covers the period between Aug. 1 and Jan. 31).

Shaw acquired Freedom (formerly known as Wind Mobile) in 2016 and has spent $785-million on capital investments and equipment costs associated with its wireless business since then, trying to improve patchy coverage, offer new smartphones and extend its service to new areas.

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The regional carrier, which operates primarily in urban centres in Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta, now has almost 1.5 million customers. It added close to 320,000 subscribers on contracts in 2018 alone, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, more than double the 116,000 subscribers it attracted in 2017.

“Given the dramatic growth of our business, we have been excited about welcoming hundreds of thousands of Canadians. … That said, we are disappointed that we have not met the expectations of a relatively small number of customers and we look forward to the opportunity to earn their business," Chethan Lakshman, vice-president of external affairs at Shaw, said in an e-mail.

He said the company’s internal data shows that the rate of customer turnover – known as “churn" – is improving and that customer complaints over the past year have declined. In January, the company disclosed its wireless churn rate for the first time, saying it had fallen to 1.28 per cent a month, down from 1.64 per cent a year earlier.

Mr. Lakshman acknowledged that “intermittent service” is a source of complaints for the carrier and said Freedom is continuing to invest in its networks to improve customer experience. He said the company needs “access to more spectrum” to do that, referencing the airwaves used to carry cellular signals.

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The federal government manages spectrum as a public resource and Shaw has frequently lobbied for favourable treatment for smaller carriers, which have less spectrum than Canada’s established national carriers, Rogers Communications Inc., BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. Ottawa is currently conducting a public auction for spectrum in the 600-megahertz frequency – which is prized for its ability to travel long distances and penetrate into buildings – and has set aside more than 40 per cent of the licences for smaller operators.

The CCTS said Tuesday that overall complaints about wireless, internet and television services were up 44 per cent in the midyear report, saying it received 9,831 complaints, up from 6,849 during the same period a year earlier.

There were a number of factors that contributed to the uptick, said CCTS Commissioner Howard Maker. In September, 2017, the federal ombudsman for the communications industry began accepting complaints about television service and it has steadily seen an increase in the TV category since then (previously, CCTS only handled telecom-related issues, generally limiting it to internet, wireless and home phone).

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In addition to the spike at Freedom Mobile, Montreal-based cable provider Cogeco also saw a surge in complaints, increasing to 790 from 120 a year earlier.

Cogeco had serious problems last year integrating a new customer service computer system that replaced 22 existing systems, causing delays in service installation calls and leading to overwhelmed customer service lines.

“More customers were impacted than anticipated and they [Cogeco] didn’t have the in-house resources to manage all the calls and complaints, so things just mushroomed. We’ve spoken to them about it and they understand what’s going on and indicated to us their commitment to try and do better,” Mr. Maker said.

“This was an increase we are not happy with as one complaint is one too many,” Cogeco spokesman Gabriel Beauséjour said in an e-mail. He said “all major issues are now behind us,” and added that “it’s been several months now” since the company returned to its regular level of customer service.

In keeping with past reports, BCE remained the provider with the most overall complaints at 3,034, more than three times Rogers in second place with 915. Telus was fourth (behind Cogeco) with 746 complaints and Freedom Mobile was fifth. However, for the large providers, those numbers do not include their sub-brands (Virgin Mobile and Lucky Mobile for BCE, Fido and Chatr for Rogers, and Koodo and Public Mobile for Telus).

The top two causes of complaints overall were incorrect charges and non-disclosure of terms or misleading information about terms. Both of these issues have been perennial problems, Mr. Maker said.

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