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Can the CRTC rescue Canadian wireless customers?

Can Canadians really make a difference in helping the wireless industry clean up its customer service act? The CRTC thinks so, and it's asking consumers to share their stories of frustration. The goal: use their input to create a new national code of conduct for Canadian wireless providers.

It promises to be an uphill climb, as complaints against telecom carriers have risen for four straight years. The 8,007 complaints filed by consumers with the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications in the 2010-11 period represented an increase of 114 per cent over the previous year. Of all complaints lodged that year, 62 per cent were for wireless services compared to 51 per cent in 2009-10. Just under half — 45 per cent - dealt with billing errors, while 34 per cent were for contract disputes.

A national patchwork of rules

In the absence of a national code of conduct, each carrier currently follows its own customer service guidelines. Contract terms often vary by province, as well, leading to a relatively disjointed patchwork of rules depending on where consumers live and which carrier they use. The CRTC says a comprehensive national code will make the rules more clear to consumers.

CRTC Chairman Jean-Pierre Blais says increased clarity can help Canadians make better use of wireless services. A simplified contractual landscape can potentially reduce the potential for invoice shock due to unexpected charges, and give Canadians a leg up in choosing the right rate plan and managing their carrier relationship for the life of the contract. Better educated consumers can extract more value from wireless services, which can drive competitiveness within Canada and beyond.

It'll need teeth

This is all lovely in theory, but the devil is in the details. Ideally, if the CRTC's move is going to have any positive impact in an environment of worsening carrier-customer relations, it needs teeth. Here's a quick look at what the CRTC is looking for, as well as what it really needs to accomplish

  • The terms and conditions that a national code of conduct should include. A code of conduct makes great reading, but ultimately means little when you're down at the wireless store about to sign your life away for three years. The CRTC should be pushing for standardized wireless contract templates, as well as greater flexibility in contract lengths and terms — the current three-year standard remains stubbornly ubiquitous, while consumers with unlocked phones are offered little to no unsubsidized rate plan options. Termination fees and additional charges also need to be normalized.

  • The organizations that should be affected by the code. We already know who's affected: carriers and consumers. What's missing is an understanding of specific accountabilities, and who is responsible when they're breached.

  • How it should be enforced. The CRTC has been dancing around the edge of wireless consumer relations for too long. Any enforcement guidelines need to come with enough teeth to prompt the carriers to play ball. Consumers deserve a more level playing field as they choose from the burgeoning field of wireless options.

  • How its impact and effectiveness should be measured. While the standards must be quantifiable — including customer satisfaction performance targets — they must also be reviewed on a regular schedule to ensure they remain relevant amid fast-changing market conditions.

There are no guarantees, of course, that every last complaint will find its way into the end result. But given how vocal Canadians have traditionally been when it comes to wireless service and the carriers who provide it, the CRTC call to action represents their best opportunity yet to improve the way wireless services are sold and managed. Then it'll be up to the CRTC to ensure it follows through with a framework more effective than mere window dressing.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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