Wireless carriers and the federal telecommunications regulator are heading toward a showdown over the rise of mobile-device theft.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is warning that it is prepared to use regulation to force the wireless industry into setting up a national registry of stolen smartphones and tablets, as more and more consumers fall victim to so-called "iCrime."
The CRTC, which says it will explore regulatory options if it remains unsatisfied by the industry's response up until Nov. 30, joins a growing chorus of critics, including police and politicians, who argue wireless firms are failing to do their part to protect consumers. Carriers in the U.S. are moving to set up a similar database to prevent stolen devices such as iPhones and iPads from being reactivated – and reducing the incentive for theft.
The commission's tougher stance on setting up a registry is the latest sign it is adopting an increasingly pro-consumer stance under new chairman Jean-Pierre Blais. In addition to delivering a pair of consumer-friendly TV decisions since taking the helm in mid-June, he announced the creation of a chief consumer officer – a new role that Barbara Motzney began on Monday.
Canadians are among the world's heaviest smartphone users, and anecdotal evidence suggests the iCrime problem is becoming more widespread. Police have been increasingly warning about a surge of violent robberies involving cellphones in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver.
According to one Toronto city councillor, cellphone robberies in that city have spiked in recent years, numbering 1,800 cases in 2011. There are also other estimates that suggest such thefts increased by 37 per cent in Vancouver between 2010 and 2011. In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission estimates that one out of three robberies that takes place in the country involves the theft of a mobile phone.
As a result, the CRTC is critical of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association's claim that it cannot provide comprehensive statistics on the number of lost and stolen devices. The CWTA has previously said that carriers collect those data in "differing degrees of detail" and consider such information "competitive, proprietary and confidential."
In a letter to the CWTA on Friday, CRTC secretary-general John Traversy wrote "It should be noted that if the Commission is not satisfied by the response of the Canadian wireless industry to this issue, the Commission will investigate what further regulatory action needs to be taken to provide the necessary tools to help consumers in this regard."
That strongly worded correspondence was meant to remind the industry that the CRTC has previously obliged carrier co-operation through regulation in the past – most notably on thorny issues like e911 and wireless number portability.
Mr. Traversy also stated the CRTC "is not convinced" by the industry's arguments about the shortcomings of an existing global registry for stolen devices. As a result, it is demanding a "detailed explanation of the costs and barriers" that carriers would face to join it.
For its part, the CWTA has previously argued that creating a national database could cost millions and that such a registry would do little to prevent stolen devices from being activated in other countries. It has pro-actively created an industry working group that includes carriers and device manufacturers to examine security solutions.
"The wireless industry, like the CRTC, takes the issue of lost and stolen mobile devices very seriously," CWTA spokesman Marc Choma said in an e-mailed statement.
He added: "As I hope the CRTC, law enforcement and Canadian consumers can appreciate, creating effective Canadian and/or international solutions to combat mobile device theft is not a quick fix. It is something that will require a great deal of co-ordinated effort and resources from all of Canada's wireless service providers and handset manufacturers. We hope to be able to provide an update on the industry's plan of action in the near future."
CRTC'S CHANGING FOCUS
Five things CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais has done to make consumers a priority:
1. After his term began in June, Mr. Blais chose to meet with consumer groups, including the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and Option consommateurs, before he met with the industry players.
2. In July, the CRTC pulled the plug on the Local Programming Improvement Fund, saving most consumers about $25 a year on their cable and satellite bills.
3. Also in July, the commission issued a decision that lays the groundwork for pick-and-pay TV packages.
4. In August, the CRTC announced the appointment of Barbara Motzney to the new role of chief consumer officer; she started that job on Monday.
5. During hearings in September on the proposed BCE-Astral deal, Mr. Blais took the unprecedented step of reading consumer complaints about Bell's customer service into the proceedings.