Howard Maker knows what it's like to be a frustrated consumer.
Canada's Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services has done his share of complaining about poor service. Until recently, his family had four telecom service providers, but now they only use two. Mr. Maker has been on the phone with all of them at various times.
"I can't tell you how many times I've torn my hair out – sometimes waiting on hold; sometimes being told different things by the same company depending on what rep I speak to," says Mr. Maker.
"We've all been there, and that's ... one of the reasons that we are so sympathetic with consumers."
Although lodging a complaint can be time-consuming, Mr. Maker says it is important for consumers to pipe up. If they receive an unsatisfactory response from their telco, his office is their next line of defence.
He admits that many Canadians have never heard of CCTS, but telecom complaints are, nonetheless, on the rise.
Nearly 11,000 complaints were filed during its 2011-2012 fiscal year, and CCTS is on track to record a more than 50-per-cent increase this year.
The majority of complaints are about wireless services. Topping the list are billing errors and contract disputes such as early termination fees – just some of the issues that will be the subject of public hearings this week in Gatineau, Que., into the creation of a mandatory wireless code of conduct.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission wants to create a code to bolster consumer protections in the $19-billion wireless industry. Up for debate are draft provisions that aim to tackle everything from the unlocking of smartphones to capping roaming fees.
Once finalized, the wireless code will be enforced by the CRTC, but CCTS will play a key role in its administration. For Mr. Maker, new national standards will give his office a key tool to resolve complaints. Even so, he believes wireless grievances will only increase after the code takes effect. "At first, we'll get more wireless complaints despite the added clarity because it (the code) shines a bright light on this."
Complaints are also bound to rise because of growing usage. There are more than 27.4 million wireless subscribers and it is common for kids as young as 11 to carry smartphones.
That is partly why CCTS is so focused on the expeditious resolution of complaints. In 90 per cent of cases it handles, both the consumer and telco are happy with the outcome, he says.
Nevertheless, some of the recent start-up carriers argue that CCTS needs broader powers. Currently, CCTS cannot levy "punitive" penalties on carriers and can only order them to pay compensation of up to $5,000.
"Mobilicity is concerned that the CCTS enforcement regime is insufficient and does not provide for adequate remedies to ensure that wireless service providers comply with the CRTC Wireless Code," it told the CRTC.
Wind Mobile, meanwhile, also wants CCTS to publicly name offending carriers, and says too many consumers simply capitulate and eat disputed charges "in order to move on and avoid a protracted battle which could impact their credit rating."
Among the major established carriers, Bell Canada and Rogers Communications Inc. say the current powers are sufficient, and need time to play out before looking at others. Telus Corp. also says that the CCTS is "perfectly suited to enforcing the code."
Perhaps more vexing is that telecom companies do not always respond when CCTS contacts them about a complaint. Last year, that happened in 43 per cent of cases. "The commissioner seems to be very dedicated, but his office doesn't have any teeth," says MP Geoff Regan, the Liberal industry critic.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre wants CCTS to impose $5,000 penalties on carriers for repeated code infractions – even if those breaches have no real monetary value.
Mr. Maker steers clear of advocating for more power, saying that is Ottawa's call. For now, CCTS remains focused on resolving complaints within its mandate.
"I always joke with people that our goal is to perfect the delivery of these services so much that we are not needed any more – that there are no complaints," he says. "But I also then say 'I never lose sleep worrying that it might happen.'"
2006: Telecommunications Policy Review Panel recommends the creation of an "ombuds office" to resolve telecom complaints from consumers and small business
2007: Government orders the creation of an industry-funded consumer agency and the CRTC later makes membership mandatory for large telcos
2007: CCTS opens for business with a membership list of 16 telcos. It handles 2,226 complaints during its 2007-2008 fiscal year
2008: Howard Maker named Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services
2010: CRTC extends mandatory membership to all telcos
2012: Nearly 11,000 complaints filed with CCTS during its 2011-2012 fiscal year. Its call centre, though, handled almost 75,000 phone calls and some 48,000 pieces of written correspondence
2013: CCTS membership includes about 200 service providers and brands. Complaint volumes are trending up in its current fiscal year with over 60 per cent about wireless