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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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Top 5 Analytics Trends That Are Shaping The Future

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Digital transformation is increasingly becoming the focus for many CIOs around the world today—with analytics playing a fundamental role in driving the future of the digital economy.

While data is important to every business, it is necessary for businesses to have a firm grip on data analytics to allow them transform raw pieces of data into important insights. However, unlike the current trends in business intelligence—which is centred around data visualization—the future of data analytics would encompass a more contextual experience.

“The known data analytics development cycle is described in stages: from descriptive (what happened) to diagnostic (why did it happen), to discovery (what can we learn from it), to predictive (what is likely to happen), and, finally, to prescriptive analytics (what action is the best to take),” said Maurice op het Veld is a partner at KPMG Advisory in a report.

“Another way of looking at this is that data analytics initially “supported” the decision-making process but is now enabling “better” decisions than we can make on our own.”

Here are some of the current trends that arealready shaping the future of data analytics in individuals and businesses.

  1. Growth in mobile devices

With the number of mobile devices expanding to include watches, digital personal assistants, smartphones, smart glasses, in-car displays, to even video gaming systems, the final consumption plays a key role on the level of impact analytics can deliver.

Previously, most information consumers accessed were on a computer with sufficient room to view tables, charts and graphs filled with data, now, most consumers require information delivered in a format well optimized for whatever device they are currently viewing it on.

Therefore, the content must be personalized to fit the features of the user’s device and not just the user alone.

  1. Continuous Analytics

More and more businesses are relying on the Internet of Things (IoT) and their respective streaming data—which in turn shortens the time it takes to capture, analyze and react to the information gathered. Therefore, while analytics programspreviously were termed successful when results were delivered within days or weeks of processing, the future of analytics is bound to drastically reduce this benchmark to hours, minutes, seconds—and even milliseconds.

“All devices will be connected and exchange data within the “Internet of Things” and deliver enormous sets of data. Sensor data like location, weather, health, error messages, machine data, etc. will enable diagnostic and predictive analytics capabilities,” noted Maurice.

“We will be able to predict when machines will break down and plan maintenance repairs before it happens. Not only will this be cheaper, as you do not have to exchange supplies when it is not yet needed, but you can also increase uptime.”

  1. Augmented Data Preparation

During the process of data preparation, machine learning automation will begin to augment data profiling and data quality, enrichment, modelling, cataloguing and metadata development.

Newer techniques would include supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning which is bound to enhance the entire data preparation process. In contrast to previous processes—which depended on rule-based approach to data transformation—this current trend would involve advanced machine learning processes that would evolve based on recent data to become more precise at responding to changes in data.

  1. Augmented Data Discovery

Combined with the advancement in data preparation, a lot of these newer algorithms now allow information consumers to visualize and obtain relevant information within the data with more ease. Enhancements such as automatically revealing clusters, links, exceptions, correlation and predictions with pieces of data, eliminate the need for end users to build data models or write algorithms themselves.

This new form of augmented data discovery will lead to an increase in the number of citizen data scientist—which include information users who, with the aid of augmented assistance can now identify and respond to various patterns in data faster and a more distributed model.

  1. AugmentedData Science

It is important to note that the rise of citizen data scientist will not in any way eliminate the need for a data scientist who gathers and analyze data to discover profitable opportunities for the growth of a business. However, as these data scientists give room for citizen data scientists to perform the easier tasks, their overall analysis becomes more challenging and equally valuable to the business.

As time goes by, machine learning would be applied in other areas such as feature and model selection. This would free up some of the tasks performed by data scientist and allow them focus on the most important part of their job, which is to identify specific patterns in the data that can potentially transform business operations and ultimately increase revenue.

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Waterloo drone-maker Aeryon Labs bought by U.S. company for $265M

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Waterloo’s Aeryon Labs has been bought by Oregon-based FLIR Systems Inc. for $256 million, or $200 million US.

The acquisition was announced Monday. 

Dave Kroetsch, co-founder and chief technology officer of Aeryon Labs, says not much will change in the foreseeable future.

“The Waterloo operations of Aeryon Labs will actually continue as they did yesterday with manufacturing, engineering and all the functions staying intact in Waterloo and ultimately, we see growing,” he said.

“The business here is very valuable to FLIR and our ability to sell internationally is a key piece of keeping these components of the business here in Canada.”

Aeroyn Labs builds high-performance drones that are sold to a variety of customers including military, police services and commercial businesses. The drones can provide high-resolution images for surveillance and reconnaissance.

The drones already include cameras and thermal technology from FLIR. Jim Cannon, president and CEO of FLIR Systems, said acquiring Aeryon Labs is part of the company’s strategy to move beyond sensors “to the development of complete solutions that save lives and livelihoods.”

‘A piece of a bigger solution’

Kroetsch said this is a good way for the company to grow into something bigger.

“We see the business evolving in much the direction our business has been headed over the last couple of years. And that’s moving beyond the drone as a product in and of itself as a drone as a piece of a bigger solution,” he said.

For example, FLIR bought a drone company that builds smaller drones that look like little helicopters.

“We can imagine integrating those with our drones, perhaps having ours carry their drones and drop them off,” he said.

FLIR also does border security systems, which Kroetsch says could use the drones to allow border agents to look over a hill where there have been issues.

“We see the opportunity there as something that we never could have done on our own but being involved with and part of a larger company that’s already providing these solutions today gives us access not only to these great applications, but also to some fantastic technologies,” he said.

Aeryon Labs has done a lot of work during emergency disasters, including in Philippines after Typhoon Hagupit in 2014, Ecuador after an earthquake in 2016 and the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016.

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Inuvik infrastructure may not be ready for climate change, says study

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The Arctic is expected to get warmer and wetter by the end of this century and new research says that could mean trouble for infrastructure in Inuvik.

The study from Global Water Futures looked at how climate change could impact Havipak Creek — which crosses the Dempster Highway in Inuvik, N.W.T. — and it predicts some major water changes.

“They were quite distressing,” John Pomeroy, director of Global Water Futures and the study’s lead author, said of the findings.

Researchers used a climate model and a hydrological model to predict future weather and climate patterns in the region. They also looked at data gathered from 1960 to the present. 

If greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate — which Pomeroy said they are on track to do — the study projects the region will be 6.1 C warmer by 2099 and precipitation, particularly rain, will increase by almost 40 per cent.

The study also found that the spring flood will be earlier and twice as large, and the permafrost will thaw an additional 25 centimetres. While the soil is expected to be wetter early in the summer, the study said it will be drier in late summer, meaning a higher risk of wildfires.

John Pomeroy is the director of Global Water Futures. (Erin Collins/CBC)

“The model’s painting kind of a different world than we’re living in right now for the Mackenzie Delta region,” Pomeroy said.

He noted these changes are not only expected for Havipak Creek, but also for “many, many creeks along the northern part of the Dempster [Highway].”

Pomeroy said the deeper permafrost thaw and a bigger spring flood could pose challenges for buildings, roads, culverts and crossings in the area that were designed with the 20th century climate in mind.

He said the projected growth of the snowpack and the spring flood are “of grave concern because that’s what washes out the Dempster [Highway] and damages infrastructure in the area.”

Culverts and bridges may have to be adjusted to allow room for greater stream flows, Pomeroy said. And building foundations that are dependent upon the ground staying frozen will have to be reinforced or redesigned.

Pomeroy said the ultimate solution is for humans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“This study is the future we’re heading for, but it’s not the future we necessarily have if we can find a way to reduce those gases,” he said.  

“It’d be far smarter to get those emissions under control than to pay the terrible expenses for infrastructure and endangered safety of humans and destroyed ecosystems.”

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