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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 3 Best Canadian Tech Stocks I Would Buy With $3,000 for 2021

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The majority of the Canadian tech stocks went through the roof in 2020 and delivered outsized returns. However, tech stocks witnessed sharp selling in the past 10 days, reflecting valuation concerns and expected normalization in demand. 

As these high-growth tech stocks shed some of their gains, I believe it’s time to accumulate them at current price levels to outperform the broader markets by a significant margin in 2021. Let’s dive into three tech stocks that have witnessed a pullback and are looking attractive bets. 

Lightspeed POS

Lightspeed POS (TSX:LSPD)(NYSE:LSPD) stock witnessed strong selling and is down about 33% in the last 10 days. I believe the selloff in Lightspeed presents an excellent opportunity for investors to invest in a high-growth and fundamentally strong company. 

Lightspeed witnessed an acceleration in demand for its digital products and services amid the pandemic. However, with the easing of lockdown measures and economic reopening, the demand for its products and services could normalize. Further, it faces tough year-over-year comparisons. 

Despite the normalization in demand, I believe the ongoing shift toward the omnichannel payment platform could continue to drive Lightspeed’s revenues and customer base. Besides, its accretive acquisitions, growing scale, and geographic expansion are likely to accelerate its growth and support the uptrend in its stock. Lightspeed stock is also expected to benefit from its growing average revenue per user, innovation, and up-selling initiatives.     

Shopify 

Like Lightspeed, Shopify (TSX:SHOP)(NYSE:SHOP) stock has also witnessed increased selling and has corrected by about 22% in the past 10 days. Notably, during the most recent quarter, Shopify said that it expects the vaccination and reopening of the economy to drive some of the consumer spending back to offline retail and services. Further, Shopify expects the pace of shift toward the e-commerce platform to return to the normal levels in 2021, which accelerated in 2020.

Despite the normalization in the pace of growth, a strong secular shift towards online commerce could continue to bring ample growth opportunities for Shopify, and the recent correction in its stock can be seen as a good buying opportunity. 

Shopify’s initiatives to ramp up its fulfillment network, international expansion and growing adoption of its payment platform are likely to drive strong growth in revenues and GMVs. Moreover, its strong new sales and marketing channels bode well for future growth. I remain upbeat on Shopify’s growth prospects and expect the company to continue to multiply investors’ wealth with each passing year. 

Docebo 

Docebo (TSX:DCBO)(NASDAQ:DCBO) stock is down about 21% in the last 10 days despite sustained momentum in its base business. The enterprise learning platform provider’s key performance metrics remain strong, implying that investors should capitalize on its low stock price and start accumulating its stock at the current levels. 

Docebo’s annual recurring revenue or ARR (a measure of future revenues) continues to grow at a brisk pace. Its ARR is expected to mark 55-57% growth in Q4. Meanwhile, its top line could increase by 48-52% during the same period. The company’s average contract value is growing at a healthy rate and is likely to increase by 22-24% during Q4. 

With the continued expansion of its customer base, geographical expansion, innovation, and opportunistic acquisitions, Docebo could deliver strong returns in 2021 and beyond.

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Manitoba to invest $6.5 million in new systems

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WINNIPEG – The province of Manitoba is investing $6.5 million over three years to replace technical systems used in healthcare facilities, including replacing current voice dictation and transcription services with more modern systems and upgrading the Provincial Health Contact Centre (PHCC)’s triage, call-recording and telephone systems, Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson (pictured) announced.

“Our government is investing in the proper maintenance of information and communications technology to ensure digital health information can be safely stored and shared as needed,” said Stefanson. “These systems will ensure healthcare facilities can continue to provide high-quality services and allow Manitobans to get faster access to healthcare resources and information.”

Dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services are used by healthcare providers to write reports. There are currently approximately 80 healthcare sites across Manitoba using some combination of dictation, transcription and voice-recognition services. Many of these systems are nearing the end of their usable lifespans.

“Across our health system, radiologists and nuclear medicine physicians use voice-dictation services to help create diagnostic reports when reading imaging studies like ultrasound, nuclear medicine studies, X-rays, angiography, MRI and CT scans,” said Dr. Marco Essig, provincial specialty lead, diagnostic imaging, Shared Health. “Enhanced dictation and voice-recognition services will enable us to work more efficiently and provide healthcare providers with quicker access to these reports that support the diagnoses and treatment of Manitobans every day.”

The project will replace telephone-based dictation and transcription with voice-recognition functions, upgrade voice-recognition services for diagnostic imaging and enhance voice-recognition tools for mobile devices.

“Investing in more modern voice-transcription services will help our health-care workers do the administrative part of their jobs more quickly and effectively so they can get back to the most important part of their work – providing top-level healthcare and protecting Manitobans,” said Stefanson. “The transition to the new system will be made seamlessly so that services disruptions, which can lead to patient care safety risks, will not occur.”

The new systems will be compatible with other existing systems, will decrease turnaround times to improve patient care and will be standardized across the province to reduce ongoing costs and allow regional facilities to share resources as needed, Stefanson added.

The PHCC is a one-stop shop for incoming and outgoing citizen contact and supports programs such as Health Links–Info Santé, TeleCARE TeleSOINS and After-Hours Physician Access, as well as after-hours support services to public health, medical officers of health, home care and Manitoba Families.

The current vendor that supplies communications support to the PHCC is no longer providing service, making it an opportune time to invest in an upgraded system that will provide better service to Manitobans, the minister said, adding the project will provide the required systems and network infrastructure to continue providing essential services now and for the near future.

“The PHCC makes more than 650,000 customer service calls to Manitobans per year to a broad spectrum of clients with varied health issues. This reduces the need for people to visit a physician, urgent care or emergency departments,” said Stefanson. “The upgrade will also allow Manitobans in many communities to continue accessing the support they need from their home or local health centre, reducing the need for unnecessary travel.”

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Telus and UHN deliver services to the marginalized

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Telus’s Health for Good program has launched the latest of its specially equipped vans to provide medical services to the homeless and underserved, this time to the population of Toronto’s west end. The project relies not only on the hardware and software – the vans and technology – but on the care delivered by trained and socially sensitive medical professionals.

For the Toronto project, those professionals are working at the University Health Network’s Social Medicine program and the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. The city’s Parkdale community, in the west end, has a high concentration of homeless and marginalized people.

First launched in 2014, Telus’s Health for Good program has delivered mobile clinics to 13 Canadian cities, from Victoria to Halifax. Originally designed to deliver primary care, the program pivoted to meet the needs of patients in the COVID-19 pandemic, said Nimtaz Kanji, Calgary-based director of Telus Social Purpose Programs.

Angela Robertson of the Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre (CHC) asserted that marginalized people are particularly susceptible to the spread of COVID-19, as they don’t have access to the basic precautions that prevent its spread.

The clinic is located near a Pizza Pizza franchise; homeless people shelter under its overhang on the weekends, she said. Some have encampments under nearby bridges.

“The public health guidelines and requirements call for things that individuals who are homeless don’t have,” Robertson said. “If the response calls for isolation, that suggests people have places to isolate in.”

And in the shelter system, pre-COVID, the environment was very congregate, with many people in the same physical space, said Robertson. Some homeless persons, in order to keep themselves safe, have created encampments, and the city has opened up some hotel rooms across the city to create spaces for physical distancing.

Even proper hand-washing and hygiene becomes a challenge for the homeless.

“COVID calls for individuals to practice constant hand-washing. Oftentimes, individuals who are homeless use public washroom facilities that may be in restaurants or coffee shops, and many of those spaces are now closed. So there are limitations to accessing those facilities. It’s not like they’re in a community where there are public hand-washing facilities for people who are homeless.”

The mobile health clinic allows the CHC to take “pop-up testing” into communities where there is high positivity and where additional COVID testing is needed. The CHC can take testing into congregate sites and congregate housing to provide more testing, Robertson said.

“The other piece that we will use the van to do is, when the vaccine supply gets back online, and when the health system gets to doing community vaccinations … we hope that we can be part of that effort.”

COVID has contributed to a spike in cases of Toronto’s other pandemic: opioid overdoses. Some community members are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma attached to substance abuse; and COVID has a one-two punch for users.

The first rule of substance abuse is, don’t use alone; always be with someone who can respond to a potential overdose, ideally someone who can administer Nalaxone to reverse the effects of the overdose, Robertson said. “It’s substance abuse 101,” and the need for social distancing makes this impossible.

Secondly, COVID has affected the supply chain of street drugs. As a result, they’re being mixed increasingly with “toxic” impurities like Fentanyl that can be deadly.

The van itself is a Mercedes Sprinter, modified by architectural firm éKM architecture et aménagement and builder Zone Technologie, both based in Montréal. According to Car and Driver magazine, the Sprinter line – with 21 cargo models and 10 passenger versions – is “considered by many to be the king of cargo and passenger vans.”

Kanji said the platform was chosen for its reputation for reliability and robustness.

While the configuration is customized for each mobile clinic, it generally consists of two sections: A practitioner’s workstation and a more spacious and private examination room, so patients can receive treatment with privacy and dignity, Kanji said. The Parkdale clinic is 92 square feet.

“While the layouts vary across regions, they typically include an examination table and health practitioners’ workstation, including equipment necessary to provide primary healthcare,” the Telus vice-president of provider solutions wrote in an e-mail interview. The Parkdale Queen West mobile clinic is designed for primary medical services, including wound care, mobile COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, harm reduction services, mental healthcare and counseling.

The clinic equipped with an electronic medical record (EMR) from TELUS Health and TELUS LTE Wi-Fi network technology.

Practitioners will be able to collect and store patient data, examine a patient’s results over time, and provide better continuity of care to those marginalized citizens who often would have had undocumented medical histories.

The EMR system is Telus Health’s PS Suite (formerly Practice Solutions). It is an easy-to-use, customizable solution for general and specialty practices that captures, organizes, and displays patient information in a user-friendly way. The solution allows for the electronic management of patient charts and scheduling, receipt of labs and hospital reports directly into the EMR, and personalization of workflows with customizable templates, toolbars, and encounter assistants.

But like others tested for COVID, it’s a 24-48 hour wait for results. Pop-up or not, how does the mobile team get results to patients who have no fixed address?

The CHC set up a centre for testing in a tent at the Waterfront Community Centre. Swabs are sent to the lab. “We are responsible for connecting back with community members and their results,” Robertson said.

“This is the value of having Parkdale Queen West being in front of the testing, because many of the community members who are homeless we know through our other services, and there is some trust in folks either coming to us to make arrangements to collect their results, or we know where they are.”

This is a key element of the program, said Kanji – leveraging community trust. In Vancouver downtown east side, for example, where there is a high concentration of marginalized members of the indigenous community, nurse practitioners are accompanied by native elders in a partnership with the Kilala Lelum Health Centre.

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