Billing errors, contract disputes drive wireless complaints

MONTREAL — Billing errors and cellphone contract disputes drove up the number of complaints against Canada’s wireless carriers. So did trying to keep a cellphone number when changing carriers.

MONTREAL — Billing errors and cellphone contract disputes drove up the number of complaints against Canada’s wireless carriers. So did trying to keep a cellphone number when changing carriers.

For the first time, wireless carriers had more than half of all complaints lodged with an independent telecom watchdog.

“Every provider has its own business model and with all the different plans and features and packages and add-ons, it’s really confusing,” said Howard Maker, head of Canada’s Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services.

The wireless industry is rapidly changing, fast-growing and competitive, making it a complex business, Maker said from Ottawa on Thursday.

“In fact, it’s very challenging for the average consumer to understand and keep up with,” Maker said from Ottawa on Thursday.

The telecom watchdog agency reported that wireless carriers were the target of 52 per cent of the 3,747 complaints it received in the 2009-2010 monitoring period, up from 38 per cent in 2008-2009.

Other complaints were about local and long-distance services as well as Internet service.

Maker said it’s no surprise that Bell (TSX:BCE), Telus (TSX:T) and Rogers (TSX:RCI.B) “lead the ladder in terms of complaints” due to their market share.

A nagging problem for consumers was when they asked to take their telephone numbers from one service provider to another and then had problems with billing or service.

“This surprises consumers considering that the industry heavily promotes the ability to change providers but keep your phone number, and the portrayal is one of a simple and smooth process,” the commissioner’s report said.

Maker said he’s looking to the wireless industry to fix the “number portability” problem.

“We just think it’s wrong that if you have the right to go to another provider, you should be able to do that without essentially being double billed for a month,” he said.

Maker also said wireless carriers need to ensure that staff are properly trained and “up-to-speed” on changes to offers and packages.

The watchdog group found that 44 per cent of complaints involved billing errors and 35 per cent were related to contract complaints.

Bruce Cran of the Consumers’ Association of Canada said he believes the statistics could be even higher because the No. 1 complaint he receives is about cellphone contracts.

“Consumers deserve a whole lot better deal,” Cran said from Vancouver.

“I think consumers are being oversold on their cellphone contracts. I think they’re deliberately made over complicated, certainly by the big three,” Cran said referring to Rogers, Bell and Telus.

Wireless carriers responded by saying they want to do better.

Bell spokeswoman Julie Smithers said the numbers reflect Bell’s size as the country’s largest telecommunications company.

“But that doesn’t mean we’re happy with the numbers,” she said. “Bell’s strategy is built on improving service by delivering a better customer experience at every level.”

Telus spokesman Shawn Hall also said he doesn’t feel that Telus’s complaints were excessive considering its size.

“But we definitely will be taking a deep look at the report, learning what we can from it,” he said. “How can we do customer service better?”

Cran of the Consumers’ Association said he hopes that the new wireless competitors change the situation.

But Maker said he doesn’t think intensified wireless competition is behind the increased complaints at this point.

“I’m not sure we’ve seen the degree of competition that we’re going to see in the future,” he said. “I am not sure that competition itself has an effect, other than when they start modifying their various offerings and processes and people and systems can’t keep up. That could create problems.”

Canada’s wireless now has new players including Wind Mobile, Public Mobile and Mobilicity.

Quebec’s Videotron cable company (TSX:QBR.B) also launched its wireless business in September and Calgary-based Shaw Communications (TSX:SJR.B) is expected to launch its wireless services next year.

Of the more than 3,700 complaints, Maker said 84 per cent were resolved to both parties’ satisfaction.

For the wireless complaints, Bell Canada had 1,428 while its Virgin Mobile service had 227 and its Solo brand had six.

Telus had 657 complaints and its discount brand Koodo had 59 complaints.

Rogers had 540 complaints and its Fido service had 242 complaints.

New wireless carrier Wind Mobile, which began offering service in late 2009, had one complaint.

Maker said Public Mobile and Mobilicity were not part of its complaints process for the latest period.

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