TV consumers get new mechanism for complaints as "skinny basic" queries escalate

A man walks by ultra high definition TVs at CES International, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2016, in Las Vegas. Consumers frustrated by their cable or satellite bills, or upset by the new, so-called skinny basic TV, will soon have a new place to take their complaints.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/John Locher

OTTAWA - Consumers frustrated by their cable or satellite bills, or upset by the new, so-called skinny basic TV, will soon have a new place to take their complaints.

The mandate of the country's telecom watchdog is being expanded to include television services, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission announced Thursday.

The decision comes as the broadcast regulator fields hundreds of calls about the slimmed-down basic TV packages that came into effect March 1.

As of Thursday, the CRTC had received 587 calls from consumers about the new $25 basic TV packages, said commission spokeswoman Patricia Valladao.

"But keep in mind, that may not only be complaints, but questions etc," she said in an email.

Come September 2017, the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications (CCTS) will handle TV service complaints as well as dealing with unresolved problems consumers have with their cell phone, land line and Internet providers.

And if the recent past is any indication, it will field thousands of gripes from people unable to resolve issues with those providers.

The complaints commissioner has dealt with roughly 10,000 complaints a year over telecom service since the body was created in 2007.

At the same time, it had to turn away thousands of people who complained about TV service providers, because cable and satellite services were not in its mandate.

With bundling of different communication and entertainment services becoming more popular, it only makes sense that consumers have a single place to bring their problems, said the CRTC.

"If a Canadian cannot resolve a complaint with a communications service provider — regardless if it is a television service provider, Internet service provider, wireless service provider or telephone service provider — the CCTS will become the single point of contact for obtaining a resolution," the regulator said in a statement.

Consumers must first contact their communication service provider to try to resolve any disputes before going to the watchdog.

If it's determined that a service provider has wronged a consumer, the CCTS can require the company to apologize for its mistake or at the very least offer an explanation.

It can also force service providers to compensate complainants, to a maximum of $5,000 per complaint, for certain losses, on top of reimbursements for any billing errors.

Advocacy group OpenMedia welcomed the announcement, calling the recent roll-out of new TV service requirements a stark reminder of why consumers need a strong complaints mechanism.

"Canadians have long suffered mistreatment at the hands of Big Telecom, and these common-sense steps should help level the playing field," said OpenMedia communications manager David Christopher.

The CRTC decision also requires the CCTS to improve the transparency of its operations and to put more effort into promoting awareness among consumers about its existence, a move commended by consumer advocates.

"The more Canadians are aware of the CCTS, the more effective the CCTS will be in fulfilling its mandate to resolve consumer complaints with communication service providers," said Jonathan Bishop, a research analyst for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.

Telecom service providers, who pay the CCTS fees based on the revenues they earn and for each complaint handled, have been reticent to make their customers aware of when and how to contact the independent body, often obscuring the information on their websites, say consumer advocates.

The complaints commissioner in its latest annual report said it had planned to survey Canadians about how much they know about the CCTS and whether the television service providers were doing enough to promote it, either through their websites or by direct customer contact.

Rather than simply urge the CCTS to release the survey results quickly, the regulator has ordered it to do so — a move that came as a pleasant surprise to Howard Deane of the Consumer Council of Canada, who has been pushing the watchdog on the issue.

"There's a larger focus on this than I expected," said Deane.

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