Who you gonna call? NS landline customers grapple with poor customer service

When Leif Vernest’s landline phone goes down, his family and the quaint farm animal rescue he runs in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley are mostly cut off.

Most recently, he spent four weeks without a landline due to an issue with Bell’s infrastructure outside the family’s two-storey house just outside Berwick, NS, leaving them without reliable access to essential services like 911.

They deal with rural internet, which is unreliable and goes down throughout the day. There is no cell service.

“It’s just very stressful, very unnecessary and it does affect the care of the animals here,” said Vernest as a ginger-colored goat affectionately brushed against his leg in the main walkway of North Mountain Animal Sanctuary.

“We have about 60 animals right now and we need that phone service, and not just for the farm pets… but if there was a medical emergency.”

During the outage, the pair did face an emergency. The health of one of their beloved goat’s — a longtime resident named William John — began to deteriorate.

Vernest is pictured with his pig named Prince. As well as operating North Mountain Animal Sanctuary, Vernest also runs an accounting practice from his home. (Robert Short/CBC)

Vernest was forced to communicate with his veterinarian via email or drive 10 minutes to find enough service to use his cellphone. His goat, unfortunately, eventually died.

It created a stressful situation that was made worse by what Vernest described as poor customer service from Bell, which continuously delayed the restoration of service and ignored pleas to speak with a manager.

Vernest’s circumstance is one shared by many rural landline customers CBC News spoke with across Nova Scotia.

They feel frustrated by what they describe as poor customer service from telecommunications companies and an apparent lack of options for recourse when they are not satisfied with the response to their complaints.

But what many do not realize is there is a free national ombudsman service that provides just that. It’s called the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services (CCTS), and its sole purpose is to help customers get their complaints resolved.

In fact, telecommunications companies are required to direct customers to the organization as part of the complaint escalation process.

The damaged infrastructure was located just outside the sheep enclosure at North Mountain Animal Sanctuary. Bell says specialized cable was required to repair the damage, and repeated winter storms has put a strain on resources. (Robert Short/CBC)

But John Lawford, executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said that doesn’t always happen.

“We find that many companies don’t refer customers to the CCTS,” said Lawford, whose non-profit seeks to protect consumer interests in regulated industries such as communications.

“And the customer sometimes finds out about CCTS afterwards and then is surprised that the telephone company didn’t refer them immediately to the ombudsperson because it’s in everyone’s interest to sort the problem out.”

Lawford noted landline disconnections are very serious, particularly if it’s someone’s only form of communication, as it cuts off access to 911 and creates a catch-22 situation where you can’t contact anyone to tell them your phone is down.

He said the CCTS prioritizes such complaints and if they aren’t able to resolve it themselves, it would be referred to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) — the federal regulator ⁠— which would usually see that the matter is resolved within a few days.

John Lawford is the executive director of the Ottawa-based Public Interest Advocacy Centre. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

But Vernest said he was never directed by Bell to the CCTS.

Bell declined an interview request. In a statement, spokesperson Katie Hatfield said if the company is unable to address customer complaints, they are directed to the CCTS as required.

“We also make customers aware of the option to contact the CCTS by including information about the CCTS in our terms of service and regularly on their customer invoices,” Hatfield wrote.

Hatfield ignored CBC’s question about why Vernest wasn’t referred to the CCTS.

Howard Maker, commissioner and CEO of the CCTS, said according to a public poll conducted last year, only 20 per cent of Canadians knew about the organization.

Maker said efforts are underway to raise awareness, including issuing annual reports, outreach to consumer advocacy groups and promoting itself on social media.

Howard Maker, commissioner and CEO of the CCTS, says service providers can generally provide services whatever way they want, at the prices they choose, with very little regulation. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

Companies are also required to tell customers about the organization through their websites and at least four times a year on customer bills.

He said the CCTS conducts compliance audits to ensure its 400 participating service providers ⁠— including Bell ⁠— are doing what they’re supposed to do.

But he conceded it’s challenging to track whether customers are being told about the CCTS through the complaint escalation process because each company has a different approach for processing such complaints.

“Personally, I don’t like to hear the fact that customers say their provider doesn’t tell them about us,” said Maker.

“I’d like service providers to take a little more of a holistic view of this and say, look, we can’t sort it out…. I would like to see them not standing on ceremony.”

In a CCTS report for August 2021 to January 2022, Bell was the most complained about service provider with 1,182 complaints. However, it was a 36 per cent decrease in the number of complaints about the company over the same period the previous year.

The CCTS received 1,694 complaints overall about local phone services, representing about 10 per cent of all issues brought to the organization.

Guy Surette said he was also never referred to the CCTS through his dealings with Bell when about 1,500 people in the Tusket, NS, area lost landline service in January after a storm.

Coun. Guy Surette says Tusket, NS’s fire department runs on a pager system and relies on landline to operate, so being disconnected without notification put people in danger. (Stephanie Blanchet/Radio-Canada)

Surette, a councillor for District 4 in the Municipality of Argyle, said residents didn’t even realize they had lost the service for about a day.

He said no one from Bell informed them — they figured it out on their own through word of mouth.

There are many seniors in the small fishing community on the province’s southwestern tip who rely on landline phone services for 911 and personal medical alert systems. Tusket’s fire service also depends on it.

“It was kind of hidden and hushed and it was very, very disappointing,” said Surrette, referring to Bell’s communication with himself and community members during the outage.

“We found it very unreliable and they didn’t step up to help the people who’ve been paying their bills for the last umteen years.”

In Bell’s statement, Hatfield said that disconnection — related to extensive damage to an underground cable — was treated as a high priority repair and crews worked around the hour to restore services, which were back for the majority of customers within 24 hours.

Lack of competition can impact service

The company said 300 remaining customers were restored after three days.

As to why customers weren’t informed of the disconnection, Hatfield said the company works with the provincial Emergency Management Offices to provide updates when a community is without home phone and cell services.

“We’ve also reached out to Coun. Guy Surette to provide a regional contact for concerns going forward,” she said.

Surrette said after the incident, he heard dozens of stories about residents who have had landline disconnection issues that took more than a week to resolve by Bell or Eastlink — the only two landline service providers in the area.

None of his constituents ever mentioned the CCTS.

Lawford said the lack of competition in rural areas can impact service levels. That can be made worse by the fact there are no longer federal regulations for quality of service.

“You do occasionally get situations where people have quite severe customer service issues or quality problems or issues, and because they are low on the list of priorities competitively for the companies, because there’s no one else to compete against them in that area, they don’t get much service,” Lawford said.

Level of regulation ‘extremely low’

Telecommunication regulations related to quality of service and price were reduced or eliminated in Canada between the 1990s and 2010 with the rise of the internet and cellphones and as the market opened up to competition.

Maker said the current level of regulation is “extremely low” and one of the reasons the CCTS was created in the first place. He added that the CRTC does have codes of conduct for service providers that set out minimum standards.

But Lawford said bringing back more rigid federal regulations that would require telecommunications companies to provide a certain quality of service would help ensure landline issues are promptly resolved.

“I believe it’s a courtesy we should all have,” he said.

Vernest said they have lost their landline service roughly four times since moving to their home in 2008, but service has appeared to decline in recent years. (Robert Short/CBC)

Back at North Mountain Animal Sanctuary, Vernest agreed.

“If you provide a service, you have to be held accountable and provide that service that you have that we’re paying good money for,” said Vernest, who also runs an accounting practice out of his home and his partner runs a natural health clinic.

“The government wants to support local businesses … but in order for us to do that, they need to keep companies like Bell accountable and make sure that they provide the services that they are supposedly supposed to provide.”

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