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For telcos, 'F' stands for fortune Add to ...

Update: This blog post has been updated. Last week Wind Mobile contacted the Better Business Bureau to inquire why the agency issued the new wireless company an F rating. It turns out the BBB did not have all the required information from the company and issued the failing grade based (in part) on a single unresolved complaint that, according to Wind, in fact had been resolved. After reviewing the information, the BBB revised Wind Mobile's rating to a B+. In all, the BBB has received three complaints about Wind in the past 36 months, which is their standard reporting period. During the same time period, the bureau processed 1029 complaints about Bell, 755 about Telus and 687 complaints about Rogers -- though it is worth noting that these companies have several million more subscribers than Wind and have actually been in operation for all of the past 36 months, unlike Wind.

Wind Mobile, one of Canada's new wireless companies, markets itself to the disaffected and disillusioned customers of Canada's Big Three wireless guys. Part of the company's shtick has been bashing the large companies every chance they get. At launch, Anthony Lacavera, the company's chairman, said the Big Three had "set the bar low."

And, most recently, at the Canadian Telecom Summit on June 9th, Mr. Lacavera said: "Trash-talking your local phone service provider has become almost as much of a national pastime in Canada as hockey."

And now, shortly after the company celebrated six months since launch, the Better Business Bureau has given Wind Mobile a big, fat F - a failing grade. Globalive Communications, the parent company that also owns the Yak brand, got the F smackdown.

But wait! Guess who also got Fs from the Better Business Bureau? Bell, Telus and Rogers, that's who. Vonage Canada, the VoiP provider, got a C-, which seems almost like praise in comparison.

This, of course, means most of the large service providers are getting failing grades. Why is this? Is it that there service and prices are really so bad and so terrible? Or is it that the Big Three can do no right in the eyes of Canadians.

I suspect it's a combination of the two, especially since you (yes, you!) complain all the time about them but still have a phone (yes, yes, it's because you have to, I know). Though it may also have to do with the BBB's ratings system, which I find a little bit confusing. And it may also be that these companies have to answer for all sorts of handset and operating system troubles simply because they sell them.

I asked Telus spokesman Jim Johannsson about the ratings and he was already knee-deep in trying to figure how the BBB came to its conclusions - and contacting higher-ups at the BBB demanding more data. By Johannsson's calculations, the BBB has registered one complaint for every 12,000 customers over the course of three years. Of 756 recorded complaints, 630 were resolved, 99 couldn't be resolved, six got no response, and 18 were unresolved.

These unresolved complaints, Mr. Johannsson said, could have been unreasonable demands. "It just means the customer wasn't satisfied with the resolution," he said. "You can read into that."

Since statistics can, and are, exploited by everyone in the telecom sector and academia to prove points and agendas, it may be best to take a philosophical approach.

The explanation, I believe, lies somewhere in the fact that the big companies are operating good businesses, but are doing so by selling devices and services that are now treated as commodities. The problem is, consumers see them as "essential services." If a call drops, the consumer feels outrage. If they can't get reception, the urge is to grab a pitchfork and begin marching up Ted Rogers Way to Rogers HQ, demanding concessions.

To be fair, sometimes cell phones and smart phones are essential services. Like when I called 9-1-1 for a guy who got knocked off his bike in front of me on Harbord St. in Toronto (and I was probably charged by my provider for the effort).

But to be fair to the companies, it really seems that no matter what they do - no matter how much they donate to charity (in the case of Telus), link the country (in the case of Bell), provide neat devices (Rogers), or bring in new choices (Wind) - people are going to hate them anyway. They are truly stuck between a rock (shareholders) and a hard place (consumer demands). Wireless providers, at the end of the day, are not providing a public service. They want to make as much profit as they can. However, they should remember that bad press, like from the BBB, may affect how politicians and the telecom regulator in Ottawa view the industry. The last time that happened, they set aside wireless spectrum licenses for new competitors.

So no matter how much they invest, which they have to do if they want to stay in business, it seems that for the time being consumers will continue to get their hate on.

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