The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) could be scrapped under government proposals to deal with soaring complaints about phone and Internet services.
The government today released a discussion paper on potential reforms to the handling of consumer complaints about telecommunications services.
TIO figures have revealed a massive increase in consumer complaints to the body — particularly complaints relating to services delivered over the National Broadband Network.
In the wake of figures that revealed NBN complaints to the TIO grew 203.9 per cent in the six-month period ending 31 December 2017, compared to the second half of the prior year, the government said it would stage a three-part review of consumer safeguards in the telecommunications sector.
The first part, consultation on which began today, covers redress and complaints handling.
One of the proposals outlined in the paper released by the government is the establishment of an External Dispute Resolution (EDR) body — which could replace the TIO — that would handle complaints “once it is satisfied that the matter was unable to be adequately addressed by the service provider’s complaint-handling processes, and has gone through the provider’s required internal escalation processes”. The body would deal with “complex” complaints.
The paper states that by the time a complaint is escalated to the TIO, consumers have “already spent some time trying to resolve the matter directly with their provider and may experience further frustration with the time taken to reach an outcome through the TIO’s complaint handling process.”
Most complaints received by the TIO are referred back to the relevant telco for resolution; fewer than 10 per cent are then returned by the consumer to the TIO for escalation, according to the government.
An EDR body should be able to deal with complaints “across the end-to-end supply chain” — including both wholesale and retail providers. Such a remit would allow it to address problems that involve both retail service providers (RSPs) and a wholesaler, such as NBN. The TIO is currently looking at how it can investigate problems that involve multiple service providers.
“Further consideration needs to be given to how industry complaints-handling and redress measures apply across the supply chain binding all parties to the responsibility to address consumer complaints,” the discussion paper states.
The body should be able to issue fines and direct telcos to provide financial compensation to consumers, the paper states.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) said it was alarmed that the proposal could see a body replace the TIO but only have the remit handle “complex” complaints.
“The TIO has been delivering well for consumers, so it would be a backward step if the government’s review resulted in changes that diminished its role and made complaints more difficult to resolve from a consumer perspective,” CEO Teresa Corbin said.
Another of the government’s proposals would see the role of collecting complaints data transferred to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
Telcos would still have the primary responsibility for dealing with consumer complaints under the government’s proposals.
The second and third parts of the government review will address the reliability of services, including time frames for connections and repairs, and consumers’ ability to make informed choices and be treated fairly in areas such as customer service, contracts, billing, debt management and switching to a new provider.
“Consumers are fed up with poor service and inadequate safeguards when their telco fails to address a complaint,” communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield said in a statement.
“The Turnbull government is obsessed with who handles and reports on complaints, rather than how you prevent complaints from happening in the first place,” acting shadow minister for communications Stephen Jones said.
“In contrast, Labor’s priority is to fix the root causes by addressing technology problems, and to put in place an NBN Service Guarantee to deliver less downtime for consumers and greater accountability in the industry.”
Labor unveiled its service guarantee policy last month. Under the new policy, if NBN doesn’t meet certain wholesale service standards for connection and fault repair timeframes or for missed technician appointments then it will face fines.
The ACMA is currently rolling out a range of new rules for telcos, including new complaints-handling rules and a service continuity standard intended to prevent households from being left without access to broadband services if there are problems during the NBN migration process.
The government is accepting submissions on its paper until 3 August.