National Post (Latest Edition) - - NEWS - Emily Jack­son in Toronto

Ottawa has or­dered the fed­eral tele­com reg­u­la­tor to in­ves­ti­gate Canada’s largest telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies for high-pres­sure sales tac­tics, or­der­ing a pub­lic in­quiry into the is­sue af­ter a se­ries of me­dia re­ports re­vealed “mis­lead­ing and ag­gres­sive” prac­tices.

In­no­va­tion, Science and Eco­nomic Development Min­is­ter Navdeep Bains an­nounced Thursday that it di­rected the Cana­dian Ra­diotele­vi­sion and Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate and re­port on sales prac­tices and to come up with so­lu­tions to strengthen con­sumer pro­tec­tions.

Ear­lier this year, the CRTC re­fused a con­sumer group’s re­quest to hold such an in­quiry af­ter a CBC in­ves­ti­ga­tion raised ques­tions about sales prac­tices at BCE Inc. and Rogers Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. In the Fe­bru­ary let­ter deny­ing the re­quest, CRTC chair­man Ian Scott said Cana­di­ans could use “well-es­tab­lished and ef­fec­tive mech­a­nisms to re­solve is­sues with their com­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices providers.”

But in a rare move, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is step­ping in to re­verse that de­ci­sion. In an in­ter­view, Bains said he’s tak­ing ac­tion af­ter hear­ing “loud and clear” from Cana­di­ans across the coun­try about their ex­pe­ri­ences with high-pres­sure sales tac­tics.

“Like many Cana­di­ans, we are con­cerned by al­le­ga­tions of clearly in­ap­pro­pri­ate sales prac­tices by tele­com car­ri­ers,” Bains said in a state­ment.

“I have di­rected the CRTC to thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gate this mat­ter. No Cana­dian should ever be mis­led or treated un­fairly by a tele­com cor­po­ra­tion, es­pe­cially those who are most vul­ner­a­ble.”

While the gov­ern­ment typ­i­cally re­frains from med­dling in CRTC busi­ness, it did so twice in 2017. Bains nudged the CRTC to re­con­sider a de­ci­sion that could open up mo­bile net­works to whole­sale ac­cess, but the CRTC sur­prised the in­dus­try when it didn’t budge from its orig­i­nal po­si­tion. It was the first ma­jor de­ci­sion un­der Scott, a for­mer tele­com ex­ec­u­tive whose lead­er­ship be­gan last fall.

On Thursday, the CRTC ac­knowl­edged the gov­ern­ment’s re­quest and said it will an­nounce next steps in due course.

“We un­der­stand that there are grow­ing con­cerns about this is­sue,” spokes­woman Pa­tri­cia Val­ladao said in an email.

The Or­der in Coun­cil de­manded the CRTC de­liver a re­port by Feb. 28. It stated that Cana­di­ans vul­ner­a­ble due to age, dis­abil­i­ties or lan­guage bar­ri­ers can be hurt most if tele­com em­ploy­ees or third par­ties sell them un­suit­able ser­vices or fail to pro­vide crit­i­cal in­for­ma­tion. Such tac­tics can lead to higher bills or cause “stress, con­fu­sion and frus­tra­tion.”

It’s pub­lic knowl­edge that com­plaints about tele­coms are on the rise, Bains said in the in­ter­view in which he stressed the gov­ern­ment’s com­mit­ment to af­ford­able telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices.

The Com­mis­sion for Com­plaints for Tele­comTele­vi­sion Ser­vices re­ported an in­crease in com­plaints in its mid-year re­port re­leased in April, and 900 peo­ple – in­clud­ing 200 cur­rent and for­mer tele­com em­ploy­ees – con­tacted the CBC with ac­counts of “il­le­git­i­mate” sales prac­tices.

The gov­ern­ment also drew at­ten­tion to two char­ac­ter­is­tics of Canada’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions land­scape: one, many ser­vices are bun­dled and two, it is highly con­cen­trated.

About 10 mil­lion Cana­di­ans buy bun­dled ser­vices, ac­cord­ing to the CRTC. Typ­i­cally, and

providers of­fer deals for peo­ple who buy in­ter­net, tele­vi­sion and landline ser­vices.

The top five own­er­ship groups ac­count for 83 per cent of rev­enue in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­tor, ac­cord­ing to the CRTC’s 2017 an­nual re­port on the in­dus­try. Those groups are Bell, Rogers, Telus Corp., Que­becor Inc. Shaw Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Inc. and Corus En­ter­tain­ment Inc. (The CRTC com­bines Shaw and Corus. They are sep­a­rate en­ti­ties, but both are con­trolled by the Shaw fam­ily.)

In emailed state­ments, the Big Three com­pa­nies em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of cus­tomer ser­vice.

“We’re happy to talk with the gov­ern­ment about cus­tomer ser­vice. Bell’s suc­cess de­pends on de­liv­er­ing the best cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence and we’re see­ing con­sis­tent growth in both cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion and sub­scriber growth,” Bell spokesman Marc Choma wrote.

“We strive to de­liver the best pos­si­ble ex­pe­ri­ence for our cus­tomers with prod­ucts and ser­vices that best meet their needs and bud­get, and we will par­tic­i­pate and share how we work to be clear, sim­ple and fair with our cus­tomers ev­ery time they con­tact us,” Rogers spokes­woman Sa­man­tha Grant said.

Telus, which out re­ceives fewer com­plaints than its top com­peti­tors, noted that it was not in­cluded in the crit­i­cal cov­er­age, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment at­trib­uted to Jo­hanne Senecal, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of gov­ern­ment and reg­u­la­tory af­fairs.

“When it comes to sales, our per­for­mance in­di­ca­tor of cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion is sim­ple: will the cus­tomer rec­om­mend TELUS prod­ucts and ser­vices to their friends or fam­ily,” Senecal said.

Telus will also par­tic­i­pate in the CRTC process, and said it’s op­ti­mistic the re­view will “el­e­vate and stan­dard­ize best prac­tices.”

The Pub­lic In­ter­est Ad­vo­cacy Cen­tre, the group that orig­i­nally called for an in­quiry, cel­e­brated the min­is­ter’s an­nounce­ment.

“The gov­ern­ment has heard the groans of Cana­dian con­sumers who too of­ten end up with a bad deal for their In­ter­net, TV and phone ser­vices,” the cen­tre’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor John Law­ford said in a state­ment.

“We are pleased that the Min­is­ter has re­versed the CRTC’s pre­vi­ous re­fusal to in­quire into these shock­ing sales prac­tices and we hope that pub­lic trust in this in­dus­try can be re­stored as a re­sult.”

In­no­va­tion, Science and Eco­nomic Development Min­is­ter Navdeep Bains


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