Skip to main content

Canada’s telecom complaint commission saw a 73 per cent increase in grievances in the six-month period ending in January as wireless service contracts emerged as the single-biggest issue among consumers.

The Commission for Complaints for Telecom-television Services’s mid-term report for 2017-18 showed it handled 6,849 complaints — up from 3,955 a year earlier — with many of the complaints addressing several issues.

Wireless contracts with missing or misleading contract terms were identified as the biggest issue, being called out 1,023 times — up from 470 a year earlier.

Commissioner Howard Maker said in an interview that missing or misleading contract terms is always one of the top two issues brought to the CCTS, but this year wireless contracts were cited far more often than any other.

“The answer, I think, relates the complexity of the wireless business in terms of how the service is sold, how it’s delivered and how it’s received,” he said.

“I think it’s also the competitive nature of the wireless market. Every provider is trying to compete with everybody else for the elusive subscriber and you see new marketing plans and promotions every day.”

Ideally, the wireless service providers would make sure front-line staff fully understand the promotions, and their implications for consumers, and that marketing and regulate information about plans is clear, he said.

“In a competitive market, sometimes that’s hard to keep up with that stuff. That’s why I think you see more of this in wireless than you do in other businesses,” Maker said.

In total, the complaints commission received 6,849 complaints against 139 service providers over the August to January period.

Bell Canada accounted for 2,275 of the complaints (33 per cent), followed by Rogers Communications Inc. with 707 (10 per cent) and Telus Corp. with 511 (7.5 per cent).

The overall increase in filings comes amid several developments that shook up the telecom industry over the six-month period from August 2017 to January 2018.

Social media posts flagged numerous consumer complaints in December, when Canada’s major wireless service providers heavily discounted some of their plans, as they battled get customers to sign up contract subscriptions.

The most recent CCTS report also covers a period when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission put its revised wireless code into effect, imposing stricter requirements on providers.

In addition, television services were added to its mandate last September. The commission says the biggest complaint about TV service since then was incorrect charges.

While the CCTS monitors adherence to the wireless code, the industry-funded complaint-resolution body has no power to penalize service providers under its mandate.

Instead, it works with consumers and attempts to resolve their issues and reports to the public on the trends it finds.

John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa, said the CCTS attempts to be independent but has limited ability to report about systemic problems within the telecom industry.

For example, there’s no incentive for industry members of the CCTS board to have the complaints commission report endemic problems about sales practices to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

“And I think that’s part of the puzzle that’s not being reported on and I think it has a real effect,” Lawford said.

PIAC — which is a consumer-oriented advocacy group that does a lot of work on telecommunications issues — has formally asked CRTC chairman Ian Scott in January to hold a public inquiry into the telecom industry’s sales practices.

Scott declined to do so in a Feb. 12 letter that said Canadians have other ways to seek redress, including directly with the service provider or the CCTS.

“I would also note that the Competition Act . . . contains provisions that specifically address false or misleading representations and deceptive marketing practices. . . . Canadians may contact the Competition Bureau with their concerns,” Scott said in the letter.

Lawford declined to say whether PIAC would or has taken complaints about telecom sales practices to the Competition Bureau but he said the organization will keep pressing for more scrutiny into the root causes for having so many complaints about contract disclosures.

A public inquiry may determine that there were only a few individuals or companies that have oversold their services.

“But I doubt that,” Lawford said.

“Because we’ve had a number of consumer complaints and we have a number of former employees coming forward to the media.”

Interact with The Globe