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Consumer group that battles the big telcos blames CRTC for its ‘dire’ financial troubles

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If you own a cellphone, use the internet or watch TV, your life has probably been affected by one of the most influential consumer advocacy organizations in the country — a group on the verge of shutting its doors for good.

For the past 42 years, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre [PIAC] has fought for better consumer protections from the telecom and broadcast industries.

But in a matter of weeks, PIAC says it will run out of money because the CRTC, the industry regulator the group so often prods, takes too long to compel the big telcos to pay the group for its work on behalf of consumers.

“We don’t exactly know why it’s taking so long to get paid,” PIAC executive director John Lawford told Go Public. “It’s a dire time right now.”

In a recent email to supporters, Lawford describes “an acute funding crunch” and says his organization will be unable to keep going without urgent help.

The CRTC has more than doubled the length of time it takes to order telecom companies to pay PIAC’s costs when it participates in regulatory issues. (Shutterstock)

The Ottawa-based advocacy organization recently moved to a smaller office to save money, and had to let two of its four staff members go.

But Lawford says that hasn’t been enough to stay afloat.

Where’s the money?

Most of PIAC’s budget comes from work the organization does at the CRTC.

“We go there as lawyers to argue for consumers,” Lawford said. “We try to get them lower prices and better service.”

When groups argue in the public interest before the CRTC, the regulator orders that the cost of that legal representation be paid by the companies involved — such as Bell Canada, Rogers, Telus and Netflix.

“It’s a regular regulatory cost for the companies,” Lawford said. “It’s an important check on their sort of full-speed-ahead efforts to get what they want from the CRTC. And it’s a small and very efficient price to pay to have consumer and public input on decisions that affect millions of Canadians.”

Lawford, second from right, testifies at the recent public hearing into sales tactics used by Canada’s largest telecom service providers. PIAC had urged the CRTC to hold the hearing. (CPAC)

He says over the past five years, the CRTC has more than doubled the length of time it takes to order telecom companies to pay those costs, from 3.7 months to 9.6 months. That’s simply too long to wait for funding, Lawford says.

PIAC is currently owed just over $150,000. The oldest outstanding claim was filed with the CRTC in July 2017.

“I think the CRTC has forgotten how it’s supposed to function,” Lawford said.

PIAC is also a registered charity and a non-profit organization, although its 2017 financial statement shows it received just $1,940 in donations.

Lawford bristles at the idea of asking the public to provide the organization’s funding.

“We’ve previously had a system that put the cost of this where it should lie,” he said. “Which is at the feet of the companies who are making billions and billions of dollars from consumers.”

CRTC will decide about payment ‘in due course’

Go Public asked the CRTC why it takes so long to make what’s called a “cost award” — calling on telecom companies to reimburse PIAC for its participation on consumer issues.

In an emailed response, spokesperson Patricia Valladao said it “depends on the complexity of the issues in each cost application.”

She also said the number of interveners applying for funding and the length of the proceeding can affect how quickly groups such as PIAC are paid. She said the regulator will make a decision about PIAC’s current application for payment “in due course.”

Consumer victories

PIAC opened in Ottawa in 1976, during the heyday of consumer activism in the U.S., led by Ralph Nader and his Public Interest Research Group.

Lawford joined PIAC in 2003. The idea of battling powerful telecom companies on behalf of consumers appealed to him.

“It was a chance to fight on a level playing field, if only for a moment,” he said. “And we got some big wins.”

PIAC was created in Canada in 1976, as Ralph Nader was leading the charge for consumer protections south of the border. (Jay Drowns/Associated Press)

In 2010, the CRTC ordered Bell Canada, Telus and other phone companies to refund every customer up to nearly $100 after overcharging for regular phone service. The rebate was the result of four years of hard work by PIAC and other consumer groups.

Lawford himself received one of those rebate cheques. It’s framed on his office wall — a memento of the fight that resulted in telcos having to refund $310 million.

The Wireless Code, a mandatory code of conduct for all wireless providers, was also hugely influenced by PIAC, Open Media and other consumer groups.

“So now there are rules about how long your wireless contract can be, and whether you can be charged when you’re roaming above a certain cap, and so on,” Lawford said. “These developments really helped consumers.”

Most recently, PIAC urged the CRTC to hold a public inquiry into misleading and aggressive sales practices used by the telcos.

PIAC called for the creation of the Commission for Complaints for Telecom-Television Services, a dispute mediator between telecom customers and their service providers. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

When the regulator refused, saying such an inquiry was not within its mandate, PIAC insisted that it was, and the federal government eventually ordered the CRTC to hold an inquiry. It is due to wrap up in February.

“Our role is to say, when consumers are having a problem that is actually affecting their bottom line in a big way… ‘As a regulator, you have to deal with it,'” Lawford said.

The group recently wrote a letter to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez and Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains urging them to contact the CRTC to help resolve the payment issues for groups like PIAC.

“We believe in your commitment to ensuring the CRTC carries out its public interest mandate and we request your assistance with this matter on an urgent basis,” wrote Harry Gow, chair of PIAC’s board of directors.

PIAC wrote a similar letter to government last year, which Lawford says prompted the regulator to order overdue costs be paid. But the delays are now worse, he says.

Go Public asked the federal government for its response to PIAC’s letter.

In an email, Dani Keenan, press secretary for Bains, said “officials are reaching out for a status update” and “will continue to monitor this situation closely.”

Hard time for consumer organizations

PIAC’s financial struggle is a reflection on the state of consumer advocacy in Canada, Lawford says.

“Broad-based consumer groups are now reduced to either being run by volunteers with only one paid staff,” he said, “or they are specialists like we are, who find a very small niche because that’s the only way to stay solvent.”

And even that “niche” approach may not save PIAC.

“It’s important to have somebody to just stick up their finger in a [telecom] hearing and say, ‘Excuse me, consumers think this.’ And that’s what we do,” Lawford said. “It’s just sad to see it go.”

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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