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Battle brews between small telco, federal complaints panel

Howard Maker, Canada’s Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

An Ontario telco plans to fight a directive from the federal regulator requiring it to join an industry-funded agency that resolves complaints about telecom services.

Brantford, Ont.-based Broadline Networks is one of six telecom service providers facing possible disconnection for failing to become a member of the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services – a six-year-old ombuds office that resolves complaints lodged by consumers and small businesses over a variety of services including wireless and Internet access.

Membership is mandatory for all telcos offering services covered by the CCTS mandate – a requirement that has been in place since 2010. Even so, "several" companies have refused to join despite repeated warnings from both CCTS and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.

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As a result, the CRTC launched a "show cause proceeding" this week in an effort to crack down on that "apparent non-compliance" – signalling it is increasingly prepared to use regulatory force to protect consumers and bring telcos into line.

For its part, Broadline appears to be girding for a fight.

"We do not believe that our services fall under the mandate of the CCTS/CRTC," wrote Tim Lampman, chief technology officer of Broadline Networks, in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail on Tuesday.

"We do not sell products or services to consumers, only to medium and large businesses. We have notified the CCTS of this several times, however we have been ignored."

He added: "Going forward we will be filing with the CRTC so that they are aware of the situation as well."

According to its website, however, Broadline offers high-speed Internet, web hosting, and managed IT services for "both business and home users."

The CRTC, meanwhile, is alleging that CCTS received "at least one complaint falling within its mandate" regarding the services of Broadline and five other telcos – none of which has joined CCTS or responded to repeated correspondence on the matter.

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The other companies named in the CRTC's notice on Monday include Adeste Global Managed Networks Inc.; iTalk BB; Lions Gate Internet (doing business as Imagen Communications); TollFreeForwarding.com; and Voipgo Corp. None has responded to requests for comment.

Howard Maker, Canada's Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, said Broadline's allegation that it has been "ignored" by his office is false, adding the first time CCTS wrote to the company was in September, 2011. "We were never ever able to get any contact with Broadline. They've never responded to us," he said.

He predicts the CRTC will hold more of these public proceedings going forward in order to step up compliance. In addition to the six companies named in Monday's notice, CCTS says it has also referred three other companies, including Sunny International Services Corp., Télécom BT and SCS Communications, to the CRTC for similar enforcement action.

"One of the purposes of the commission doing this and doing it in such a public way is to try and incent other service providers to respect their obligations to participate," said Mr. Maker. "Hopefully that will achieve its intended purpose. I do, however, think you'll see more of these proceedings."

Last year, the CRTC launched a hearing for Brama Telecom Inc. for failing to join CCTS, but the proceeding was later cancelled after the company had a change of heart and signed up.

"Each telecommunications service provider (TSP) that provides services within the mandate of the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services Inc. (CCTS) is required to join the CCTS within five business days of being informed that the CCTS has received a valid customer complaint about that TSP," said the CRTC's notice.

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"Despite receiving such notification from the CCTS and the commission, several TSPs have failed to join the CCTS, thereby leaving their customers unable to resolve complaints related to their telecommunications services. The commission therefore initiates a proceeding to show cause why, among other things, these TSPs should not be disconnected."

The CRTC is getting tough with telecoms that flout the rules at a time when complaints about telecom services are skyrocketing. Almost 11,000 complaints were filed with CCTS during its 2011-2012 fiscal year, and the agency is on track to register a more than 50 per cent increase this year.

In addition to grappling with higher complaint volumes, CCTS is also facing sharper scrutiny as it prepares to play a bigger role in tackling and tracking grievances about wireless services.

Once the CRTC introduces a final version of its wireless code of conduct this year, CCTS will play a pivotal role in its administration. Still, there have been suggestions from small carriers, consumer groups and federal politicians that CCTS has weak powers and an "insufficient" enforcement regime.

That is because CCTS cannot levy "punitive" penalties on telcos and can only order them to pay compensation of up to $5,000.

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