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Submission by AEBC and CNIB - CRTC 2015-239: Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services

Date: 
Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians
PO Box 20262, RPO Town Centre
Kelowna BC V1Y 9H2
Tel: 1-800-561-4774
Email: info@blindcanadians.ca
http://www.blindcanadians.ca

Contact:
Leo Bissonnette, AEBC National Director and CRTC Liaison
E-Mail: leo.Bissonnette@videotron.ca

CNIB
101-1355 Bank Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1H 8K7
Lui Greco, National Manager of Advocacy for Diane Bergeron Executive Director, Strategic Relations and Engagement
Lui.greco@cnib.cadiane.bergeron@cnib.ca

Filed Electronically

Mr. John Traversy
Secretary General
Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0N2

Dear Mr. Traversy:

Re: Broadcasting and Telecom Notice of Consultation CRTC 2015-239: Review of the structure and mandate of the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services Inc. (the “CCTS”)

1. On behalf of CNIB and The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), we would like to thank the commission for the opportunity to comment on the above indicated matter. Strengthening an effective dispute/complaint mechanism will be a significant step in ensuring that Canadians will have a viable alternative when discussions with their BDU, telephone/wireless provider and other services covered by the Commissioner for Complaints for Telecommunications Services (CCTS) prove unproductive.

BACKGROUND

About The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians

2. The Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC) is a national, not-for-profit charitable organization that works with and for blind, deaf-blind, and partially sighted Canadians across the country. We work to encourage the full participation of our constituents in all aspects of society: at work, in play, with the family, in business and commerce, in politics, in the arts, and in entertainment.

Our work consists of:

  • Public education, to better inform the public and other stakeholders of the rights, responsibilities, and capabilities of blind, deaf-blind, and partially sighted Canadians.
  • Peer support and training, providing opportunities for individuals to share their knowledge and to teach one another skills and technology that help them to fully participate in everyday life.
  • Advocacy support, assisting individuals and groups in achieving equitable access to programs and services.

About CNIB

3. One of Canada’s oldest charities, CNIB passionately provides community-based support and knowledge to ensure Canadians who are blind or partially sighted have the confidence, skills and opportunities to fully participate in life.

4. To do that, our dedicated specialists work with people of all ages in their own homes, communities or local CNIB offices – providing the personalized rehabilitation support they need to see beyond vision loss, build their independence and lead the lives they want.

In addition to our community-based services, we also work alongside Canadians who are blind or partially sighted to advocate for a barrier-free society, and we strive to eliminate avoidable sight loss with world-class research and by promoting the importance of vision health through public education.

OVERVIEW

5. The current framework as we understand it, provides not only an ombudsman role for the CCTS, but a binding mechanism wherein reasonable solutions can be imposed on service providers. Thus, we encourage the commission to strengthen the reach of the CCTS such that Canadians with vision loss can find reasonable resolutions to their complaints. However in order to achieve this, the commission will need to revisit whether or not accessibility issues should be transferred to the CCTS. We would like to suggest that the CCTS may prove more effective given that their complaint mechanisms are less onerous and provide consumers with compensation where appropriate.

How does an independent communications ombudsman serve the needs of consumers; specifically those with vision loss or other disabilities?

6. When Canadians with vision loss engage with TVSPs or other communication service providers, the engagement often proves challenging. The primary reason for this is due to the level of awareness around vision loss which exists amongst Canadians at large and staff within communications companies. Thus, our experience indicates that consumers with vision loss may often merely except inadequate or incomplete services rather than persevere through, what can prove to be an exhausting process of articulating their needs. While commission staff are diligent in handling complaints when received, the mechanisms in place with the CCTS provide a clearer process with tangible outcomes by which to resolve complaints. These complaints may stem from a lack of accessible websites, accessible equipment, sparse if any choice as to the availability of accessible wireless devices and so on.

Does the survey provide an effective and appropriate measurement of consumer satisfaction?

7. Given that accessibility complaints currently lie with the commission and not the CCTS, no mechanisms within the CCTS’s mandate exist to measure the satisfaction of complaint mitigation for consumers who are blind or who have significant vision loss. Should the commission choose to include accessibility services within the CCTS updated mandate, then we would encourage that accessibility issues are captured within the context of customer satisfaction surveys.

What measures, including online approaches, should the CCTS take to promote itself and increase public awareness of the CCTS?

8. Increasing awareness of the CCTS amongst Canadians with significant vision loss will require a targeted approach. We would suggest that the following two key initiatives be incorporated into the CCTS’s updated mandate:

  • A commitment to insure that the online complaint mechanism be regularly tested for accessibility and
  • That targeted promotional activities be undertaken to better communicate with Canadians with vision loss or other disabilities.

Components in a complaints mechanism for persons with disabilities would include:

  • Development of an online system that is fully accessible to persons with disabilities and that said online system should be fully W3C compliant;
  • Before being release to the public, that the system under go rigorous user acceptance testing.
  • In executing these tests, use cases representing complainants with vision loss should be developed. the user acceptance testing would be conducted by Canadians who work with text to speech or large print assistive technology.
  • These testers should be reflective of a broad skill set which would better resemble possible future complainants.

Should the commission see fit to have accessibility complaints handled by the CCTS, then we would suggest that a dedicated queue be created. This queue should be staffed by individuals who receive regular and ongoing training on disabilities, specifically the assistive technologies commonly used. These individuals would receive disability specific training in vision, hearing, mobility and cognitive disabilities. Given that assistive technology changes rapidly, we would strongly encourage the CCTS to ensure that training curriculum be updated at minimum, every twelve to eighteen months.

9. We believe that enhancing the CCTS’s existing online complaint system to be fully accessible would reap the following benefits:

  • bridge the technical divide between persons who are blind, visually impaired or who have other disabilities and the technology that is needed for them to take advantage of an online complaints mechanism;
  • bridge the gap between the CCTS and Canadians with vision loss or other disabilities and;
  • develop expertise that can help Canadians with disabilities to take advantage of an online complaints mechanism.

10. Secondly, We would strongly suggest that conventional channels, such as newspaper ads, magazines and internet advertising be avoided. These mediums tend to best illustrate how not to make information accessible there by preventing Canadians with vision loss from accessing the information which this medium conveys.

11. We would suggest that the most effective mechanism to increase awareness of the CCTS would be to request all participating organizations to regularly include information on the CCTS in their monthly accessible alternate format bills. Additionally, for those participating organizations who have a web presence, that information on the CCTS be included within the accessibility sections of their websites.

12. There are several organizations of and for the blind within Canada, of which CNIB and AEBC are only two. These other organizations may also prove effective in helping increase awareness of the CCTS, its mandate and how they can help mitigate consumer complaints.

Are there specific consumer segments where the CCTS should focus its promotional activities?

13. Amongst the CCTS’s promotional activities should exist messaging which targets Canadians with disabilities. There are numerous organizations such as AEBC and CNIB who regularly share information with our clients/members. However, as with most promotional activities, measuring the long term impact through this medium is marginal at best.

14. A more effective approach might be to include Canadians with disabilities within the CCTS advertising/promotional campaigns. Examples could include images of someone with a white cane or guide dog using a wireless device, someone with a closed circuit TV reader attempting to decipher their monthly bill etc. These portrayals should avoid professional actors but rather engage Canadians who actually live with disabilities. The end result of this would be increased awareness of Canadians with vision loss amongst society at large, thereby helping break down the most significant barrier facing people with disabilities; the disability myth.

Are the current measures used by CCTS participants to promote the CCTS sufficient?

15. No, please see above

How could TVSPs promote the CCTS?

16. As stated earlier, we would encourage avoiding mass market media to reach Canadians with vision loss. We feel that public service announcements (PSA’s) which positively portrayed Canadians with disabilities by Canadians with disabilities would be extremely effective. These PSA’s should include both closed captioning as well as being described.

How should the effectiveness of these public awareness initiatives be measured?

17. A long term – eighteen to twenty four month – approach should be adopted in measuring the effectiveness of any PSA. Provided that the PSA’s are aired at appropriate times, not at 2:00 in the morning, and that they are described, then evaluating these campaigns will be more effective.

18. An obvious effectiveness indicator would be the number of accessibility specific complaints brought to the CCTS within a six to eighteen month window. It would also prove extremely valuable if all participating organizations within the CCTS framework begin to also track customer complaints as they relate to accessibility services; not just those brought to the commission, under the current framework, or the CCTS should the commission choose to update their mandate accordingly. Our rationale here is that as Canadians with vision loss or other disabilities become aware of their ability to go beyond their service provider that service providers will, hopefully, become more proactive in finding satisfactory resolutions for their customer complaints.

Should participation in the CCTS continue to be mandatory for all TSPs that provide services within the CCTS’s mandate? Why or why not? Provide supporting rationale.

19. As Canada’s telecommunications and broadcasting sector continues to evolve, all organizations including new entrants must be held accountable with respect to their dispute and complaint mechanisms., Indeed, we would suggest that in an open and fair market, all entrants should be held accountable to the same codes of practice and obligations as their competitors; irrespective of the business model with which they operate. This will insure that customers who are blind or who have other disabilities have access to appropriate complaint mechanisms regardless of who they select as their communications service provider. In the absence of such a mechanism, it is extremely unlikely that a non-participating organization would communicate the existence of the CCTS to their customers. We elaborate further below; see paragraph 21.

Should participation in the CCTS become immediately mandatory on a going-forward basis for small TSPs that are not currently CCTS participants (i.e. instead of the requirement being triggered by a complaint)?

20. Participation in the CCTS should be mandatory on a go-forward basis for all existing and new entrance into the Canadian communications market. The current opt out mechanism, making participation mandatory only upon receipt of a formal complaint is not appropriate in our view. Why would a service provider choose to make their customers aware of dispute mechanisms to which they do not subscribe? Although beyond the scope of this submission, we believe that this creates an uneven playing field where participating organizations are in essence subsidizing non-participating companies.

21. As Canada’s telecommunications and broadcasting sector continues to evolve, all organizations including new entrants must be held accountable with respect to their dispute and complaint mechanisms.

With the recent amendments to the Telecommunications Act that allow the Commission to directly impose conditions of service on resellers, should the requirement that TSPs participate in the CCTS be imposed directly on resellers on a going-forward basis?

22. In an open and fair market, all entrants should be held accountable to the same codes of practice and obligations as their competitors; irrespective of the business model with which they operate. This will insure that customers who are blind or who have other disabilities have access to appropriate complaint mechanisms regardless of who they select as their communications service provider. In the absence of such a mechanism, it is extremely unlikely that a non-participating organization would communicate the existence of the CCTS to their customers.

Should participation in the CCTS be mandatory for all licensed TVSPs and related exempt undertakings? Why or why not? Provide supporting rationale.

23. In the absence of an effective and binding dispute mechanism, what recourse will Canadians who are blind have should their TVSP not be able to meet, satisfactorily, their accessibility needs

24. Creating a regulatory or best practice environment where in certain providers are expected to participate in a quasi-binding dispute mechanism while others do not creates an inefficient marketplace. Yes, in major centres throughout Canada, consumers do have choices and switching their TSP should complaints fail to go unresolved is always an option. However, this is not the case in rural areas where only one provider may be delivering services.

Does the CCTS’s mandate remain appropriate with respect to the categories of complaints it can address about telecommunications services (i.e. compliance with contract terms, billing disputes and errors, service delivery, and credit management for telecommunications services and complaints related to codes of conduct that the CCTS administers)? Why or why not?

25. Unfortunately, the complaints being tracked currently by the CCTS do not appear to incorporate quality of service/accessibility complaints. As such, we believe that the mandate of the CCTS should be expanded such that complaints related to unmet or unfulfilled requests dealing with accessibility should be an integral part of the CCTS reporting mechanisms. Issues such as website accessibility, inadequate customer service, inappropriate product inventories or lack of alternate format materials are only a few examples of service disparities facing Canadians with vision loss or who have other disabilities.

26. At the same time, alternate format communications beyond monthly bills remains problematic. We would suggest that this issue specifically remain under the direction of the CRTC as several decisions and directives speak to this requirement adequately.

Should the CCTS address the same types of issues for consumers of services provided by TVSPs that it addresses for consumers of telecommunications services? Why or why not? What additional issues, if any, should it address?

27. The line between TVSPs and telecommunications service providers is quickly fading. More and more content is being delivered online by TVSPs simply using a different medium; the internet VS copper. As such, we do not believe that creating an alternate landscape would make for an efficient system should different expectations be imposed on TVSPs vs communication service providers. The complaint mechanism available to all Canadians, including those with vision loss or other disabilities should be common.

28. In an ideal world, the CCTS should be the go to complaint resolution body for consumers. All issues regardless of how access/content is delivered should rest within the domain of the CCTS.

Certain services associated with the telecommunications industry are excluded from the scope of the CCTS, such as alarm monitoring, telemarketing, and accessibility services. Are there specific services provided by TVSPs that should be excluded from the CCTS’s mandate?

29. At a time when the lines between communication services are blurred, all services should be included. Taking the specific area of alarm monitoring, we are starting to see apps for alarm monitoring on cell phones, where many of the service issues are similar: purchasing of apps that deliver the advertised functionality must be made accessible. Both CNIB and AEBC along with other disability organizations have spoken to a lack of accessible aps provided by communications companies in many prior submissions.

Is the current structure of the CCTS’s Board of Directors and the voting structure appropriate?

30. We do not believe that the current structure adequately reflects the makeup of Canadian society. The CCTS board of directors is strongly represented by telecommunications service providers with only minimal representation by consumer groups. We would like to encourage the commission to expand the CCTS terms of reference such that persons with disabilities are better represented within the existing governance model of the CCTS. At minimum, at least one, if not 4 spots on the CCTS board should be allocated to Canadians with Disabilities. A similar model already exists with the Broadcast Accessibility Fund (Footnote: The BAF board of directors: http://www.baf-far.ca/en/board-directors-and-staff).

31. Should the commission choose not to shift accessibility issues to the CCTS, it is safe to assume that given the prevalence of disability within Canadian society that complaints brought to the CCTS are done so, in part, by persons with disabilities. Under the current mandate, the CCTS has no mechanism by which to resolve or even understand these complaints through a disability lens.

Do the remedies provided by the CCTS to consumers as set out in its Procedural Code, including compensation up to $5,000 per complaint, remain appropriate and sufficient to meet the needs of consumers of both telecommunications and television services?

32. We believe that the current remedies in place are adequate. Our only comment would be that when decisions are handed down by the board, that remedies and compensation be enforced within a reasonable period of time. Additional litigation following a time intensive and resource rich process of bringing a complaint before the CCTS should represent a conclusion.

Comment on whether any changes are required to the categories of complaints the CCTS reports on its annual and mid-year reports as a result of the addition of services provided by TVSPs to its mandate.

33. Should the commission see fit to add TVSPs to the CCTS mandate, we would like to see that broadcasters not meeting the CRTC mandated amount of described video content be added as another category of complaint. As set out in the “Let’s Talk TV” discussions currently under way, broadcasters are expected to provide twenty eight hours of described content during prime time by 2019. The current mandated minimum, four hours/week, although woefully inadequate has clearly articulated to broadcasters that described video is as important to Canadians with vision loss as is closed captioning for our friends who are deaf or hard of hearing.

34. With respect to billing issues, we would like to see the CCTS capture complaints on the lack of alternate format bills and other communications from both TVSPs and communication service providers.

35. Although currently outside of the CRTC’s regulatory landscape, the lack of accessible set top boxes, should also be categorized by the CCTS as a complaint category. Again, as spelled out in the “Let’s talk TV” initiative, these devices will be mandated by 2019 provided that BDU operators can source equipment which is compatible with their networks. We remain hopeful, that Canada’s BDUs will undertake serious efforts to identify and implement suitable solutions. Given that this technology, “accessible set top boxes”, have already been introduced in the United States and other jurisdictions, we find it unsettling to see that Canada’s BDUs are not proactively seeking out a solution to address this significant issue facing their customers who are unable to use existing electronic program guides.

Are there other modifications to the CCTS structure that could make its operations more effective or efficient? If yes, describe the modifications and provide the rationale for their adoption.

36. At the current time, we are satisfied that the CCTS is adequately addressing their mandate. However, should the commission decide to renew the mandate of the CCTS we would suggest an interim review be under taken within eighteen to twenty four months. This represents best practices in a formal evaluation process. Interim evaluations are common place when assessing the effectiveness of service delivery to customers and organizations.

Note: Action research is a disciplined process of inquiry conducted by and for those taking the action. The primary reason for engaging in action research is to assist the “actor” in improving and/or refining his or her actions. See: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/100047/chapters/What-Is-Action-Research%C2%A2.aspx

What is the appropriate time frame for the next review of the CCTS?

37. We support the commissions view that a five year review of the CCTS would be appropriate. We are also hopeful that the outcomes of this public consultation results in substantive change within Canada’s broadcasting, wireless, communications and internet domain. CRTC policy has, gratefully, acknowledged the rightful needs of All Canadians to quality, reliable services from our communications companies and we believe that this complaint mechanism, when modified, will strengthen the commissions policy direction.

Is the current CCTS performance report the appropriate framework for measuring the performance of the Agency? If not, what measures are appropriate and why?

38. Based upon our understanding of the scope of the coverage in the CCTS performance report, we believe that it is an appropriate vehicle to provide the commission feedback for future policy development.

CONCLUSION

39. CNIB and AEBC are grateful for the opportunity to share our perspective with the commission. We realize that no easy answers exist to properly address the concerns of Canada’s many stakeholders including Canadians with disabilities. Thus, the need for continued dialogue through forums such as this is crucial.

40. We would like to request that both CNIB and AEBC be provided an opportunity to participate in the upcoming public hearings on this matter. We could attend via skype through either the Montreal or Calgary CRTC offices or in person.