How a Canadian TCO with 1 million members and a $30 million annual budget can be formed
WHAT IS THE TELECOMMUNICATIONS CONSUMER ORGANIZATION (TCO)?
The Telecommunications Consumer Organization (TCO) is a proposed federally chartered, non-profit organization designed to represent and educate consumers on telecommunications industry issues (broadcasting, cable TV, telephone and Internet). The TCO will advocate for fair service from telecommunication companies before the industry regulators, the government and the courts. It will also educate telecom consumers on issues such as services, charges and fees.
The TCO proposal is based upon Citizen Utility Boards (CUBs) which already exist in four states in the U.S. In these states, all of the utilities are required to enclose a pamphlet in their billing envelopes inviting people to join the CUB. About five percent of consumers usually join the CUB at a $40 annual membership fee. CUBs are independent, broad-based watchdog groups that are run democratically by their members and represent consumers’ interests in the marketplace. For example, in Illinois the CUB has 150,000 members, a $1.5 million annual budget, and has saved consumers about $9 billion since 1983 by opposing rate hikes by utilities.
According to a national survey, 64% of Canadians support the creation of the TCO using the pamphlet method, while only 27% oppose it.
In addition, a national coalition made up of 31 citizen groups with a total membership of 3.5 million Canadians supports the creation of the TCO.
HOW WILL THE TCO BE SET UP AND HOW WILL IT WORK?
To set up the TCO, the federal government must require federally-regulated cable TV and telephone companies to send a pamphlet with the bills they to their more than 20 million customers annually, and also include a notice at the top of every email they send to their customers with a link to the TCO website.
Alternatively, telecommunication companies could volunteer to enclose the pamphlet and include the notice in their emails, and as long as enough large companies volunteered enough individual investors would receive the pamphlet and email notice to make the TCO viable.
The pamphlet and email notice will describe the TCO and invite telecommunication consumers to join at a nominal annual membership fee ($30 — with a lower fee for people with low incomes). The government can either lend or grant to the TCO the funds needed to print the first pamphlet. After the first pamphlet, however, the TCO will pay all the costs of the pamphlet. Including the notice about the TCO at the top of their emails will cost telecom companies nothing. As a result, the TCO can be set up at little or no cost to government or the telecommunication companies.
If only five percent of telecommunication customers join the TCO, it will have one million members and about $30 million annual budget. With these resources and large membership base, the TCO will be able to represent and provide services to telecom customers across Canada.
The TCO will be a democratic organization, controlled by its members through the election of regional delegates and the TCO’s board of directors. The board will hire the TCO’s professional staff and determine the group’s policies.
WHAT WILL THE TCO DO?
The TCO will educate consumers through price surveys, public forums, shopping guides and various other publications.
The TCO will also hire economists, experts, organizers and lawyers to represent consumers.
WHY IS THE TCO NEEDED IN CANADA?
A few companies across Canada control access to cable TV, telephone and Internet service overall because of their control of phone lines, and cable and satellite networks.
There have been ongoing, widespread concerns about the services, charges and fees of these companies, as well as broadcasting generally, and government decisions on these issues.
The TCO will provide key consumer education information, encouraging competition in the marketplace and better service for all telecommunication consumers.
Consumers are an important part of Canada’s telecommunications system, but because of lack of resources their voice is not strong enough to be heard consistently by governments, especially given the enormous resources and strength of the telecommunications industry lobby.
The tens of millions of dollars telecommunications companies use to advocate their interests each year (through advertising, lobbying and political donations) are all paid for by telecommunications consumers.
The TCO will act as an umbrella group to bring together the resources of consumers and existing consumer groups an organized voice for their interests on telecommunication services issues in the marketplace.
For more details, go to Democracy Watch’s Citizen Association Campaign