Wireless operators promise ‘simple language’ in contracts

In its two years of operation, the independent agency that handles telecommunications complaints has seen the number of calls it received more than double to 17,000. Roughly one-third of those came from wireless subscribers objecting to everything from billing to contract cancellations.

To stem the flow of those complaints, the country’s 11 incumbent and soon-to-launch wireless operators announced on Tuesday a code of conduct for their small business and consumer customers. Developed by the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), which speaks for the industry, the code obliges members to provide subscribers with complete details on rates, charges, terms and coverage and help them understand contracts.

“We strive to communicate with our customers in plain, simple language,” the code says in part. “This includes taking steps to make sure that that our documents, including service agreements, contracts, and invoices are clear and readable.”

The code also obliges members to try to resolve a complaint “the first time you call, write or e-mail” an operator. If that’s not possible, “we try to find a solution within 30 days or as soon as we can under the circumstances.”

Failing that, complainers can go to the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services, a non-profit group funded by wireless operators set up in 2007 to handle complaints involving wireless, wireline and cable services.

However, the code won’t stop operators from issuing multi-page brochures in fine print detailing their services, nor will it stop operators from unilaterally changing or adding extra fees or charges if 30 days’ notice is given.

The code was one of the first projects pressed by former New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord when he became president and CEO of the CWTA last year. “We wanted to make sure there were high standards that became minimum standards across the industry,” he said in an interview. “There are close to 23 million subscribers in Canada,” he said, “and we felt it would be good to have a code of conduct to ensure that consumers have the information they need in the way they need to make the decisions they want to make.”

Making the complaints commission officially a place where subscribers can go “gives some teeth” to the code, Lord said.

The code was announced just days after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced an inquiry into the billing practices of wireless operators there. Lord said there is no need for a government or regulatory agency to do the same here.

Initially, at least, the code won’t make much difference in the way the leading cellular companies do business. “We pretty much do everything that the code lays out, and have done for some time,” said Shawn Hall, a spokesman for Telus, which accounts for roughly 30 per cent of Canadian wireless subscribers. “We already have a one-page contract statement that we give customers, and customers sign it, when they take a contract with us. We’ve had that for two years.”

Asked in an e-mail if Rogers Communications will be changing any of its sales procedures or documents as a result of signing the code, Carly Suppa, the company’s manager of corporate communications replied that “continued customer improvement is a key priority for Rogers.” As part of its procedure , complaints can be taken to the cableco’s president or its ombudsman. Rogers is the largest wireless company, accounting for about 37 per cent of wireless subscribers.

A Bell spokesman was still trying to find complaint information by press time. She said the code “sums up our customer service focus very well.”

It isn’t clear exactly how many complaints wireless customers lodge with operators in a year. Spokesmen for Rogers, Bell and Telus couldn’t provide statistics.

For its first operating year, which ended July 31, 2008, the telecommunications complaints commission handled 6,123 calls. Of those about one-third dealt with wireless. According to commission head Howard Maker, for the year that just ended the number of calls “exploded” to over 17,000. The number of complaints investigated from those calls jumped by about 40 per cent compared to the year before he added.

The increase may in part be due to the commission becoming better known, he said.

Maker is among the wireless subscribers who have opened a monthly statement and got a surprise: Several years ago his unlimited BlackBerry data service plan was unilaterally changed to a capacity cap. “I was not amused,” he recalled. However, the cap was so high it made no difference to his wallet.

Had it been in force at the time the code would have prevented that. It specifies that operator members will not change the fixed terms of contracts without 30 days notice unless the changes are required by law.

Part of the problem with the wireless industry, Maker said, is that contracts are written by the carriers, “so it doesn’t come as any surprise that the contracts tend to cover off the carriers’ interests quite carefully.”

The complaints commission has an eight-person board, including Maker, who is a non-voting member. Four board members are independent while three are from the wireless industry.

The code is aimed at small businesses and consumers, perhaps because enterprises have the need – and sometimes the ability – to negotiate complex contracts. However, Roberta Fox, whose Fox Group telecommunication consultancy advises enterprises on cellular contracts, said her customers have no shortage of complaints about service, dropped calls and pricing. “If the carriers were providing what they said” in the code, she said, “then we wouldn’t be doing that work.”

There’s no reason the principles in the code shouldn’t be the same for enterprises, she added.

“The wireless business is very complex and that average consumers are having trouble coming to grips with the twists and turns of it,” complaints commissioner Howard Maker said. “The objective [of the code] is that hopefully, through clarity, to reduce the number of complaints that come forward.” Whether that will happen, he added, “remains to be seen.”

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