March 26, 2015 4 years 8 months ago

The Wireless Code of Conduct: Is the Sky Falling?

On December 2, 2013, the CRTC launched the Wireless Code of Conduct. CCTS, the telecom industry’s independent, impartial complaint-handling body, was asked to administer it – to apply the rights and obligations it affords consumers and service providers, as well as track breaches and report them publicly. We’ve been doing so, and the number of breaches is on the rise.

In our Annual Report last fall, we detailed the first eight months of Code activity (to July 31, 2014). We identified 30 violations by service providers. The biggest category of concern was failure to provide customers with documents required by the Code, in the manner required by the Code, when they signed up for service.

CCTS will soon release its first-ever mid-year report, and the number of breaches appears to have exploded. We tracked over 300 violations between August 2014 and January 2015. Does the ten-fold increase mean service providers have completely dropped the ball? Is the sky falling?

Not really. In the story of Chicken Little, an acorn drops on the protagonist’s head and she runs off to report a crisis to the king, setting off a series of events that end badly for her and her fowl friends. A little context could’ve helped Chicken Little, and context is also necessary to understand what’s happening with the Code.

A number of factors have come together to boost the numbers. For one thing, we at CCTS have become more expert at understanding the Code, which applies to more and more customers signing new wireless contracts. We hear complaints about many different providers, all of whom have unique contracts, terms of service, policies, and processes. And as time has passed, many providers have made changes to their contractual documents. So we regularly see new and different situations to which the Code applies.

The CRTC made clear the policy objectives underlying the Code, but its provisions don’t always precisely express the manner in which they should be applied. So as we reported last fall, we have to interpret many aspects of the Code. Some of our interpretations differ from those made by service providers, and those differences substantially contributed to the increased number of breaches.

For example, providers believe Code provisions requiring customers to receive notice before service is cut off apply only if disconnection is full and final. Our interpretation is that customers should get notice any time their service is about to be cut, even if only temporarily. One wireless provider has filed an application to the CRTC challenging our interpretation.  We’ve filed a response in which we explain our position, and it’s up to the CRTC to tell us how it wishes this provision to be interpreted. But it’s noteworthy that of the 300-plus breaches we’re reporting, 85 relate to this contentious issue.

Also during this period, we received some 60 complaints from the customers of one particular provider. Upon investigation, we determined there were a number of Code compliance issues with various aspects of a certain offering. Because of the high number of complaints, we wound up identifying over 200 breaches (some of which overlap with the 85 mentioned above), and we’ve been working with that provider to resolve the problem.

So no, the sky isn’t falling. CCTS is identifying, investigating, and reporting on Code violations when we find them. And we are still concerned about whether customers are getting all the information they need when they subscribe for service.  Almost a third of Code violations this year relate to problems with the contract and related documents. But these numbers are only one part of the story. Our report also notes that complaints are down, and CCTS continues to help customers and service providers successfully resolve almost 90 per cent of those we receive.

Sometimes an acorn is just an acorn. But it’s still nice to know that there’s someone keeping an eye on the oak.

Howard Maker is Commissioner and CEO, Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.