Telstra priority assistance service faces scrutiny

ACMA directed telco to commission an independent audit after two customers with life-threatening medical conditions died

Telstra will commission an independent audit of its compliance with its priority assistance obligations after a direction from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Telstra is the only telco that has priority assistance obligations as a condition of its carrier licence. The telco’s ‘Priority Assist’ service is available to eligible customers that have a landline home phone service through the company. It only covers voice services.

The service is available to Telstra customers who, due to a life-threatening medical condition, may be at heightened risk if they don’t have access to a home phone service.

The ACMA said the direction results from an investigation launched following two incidents in 2017 when customers with serious health conditions were unable to use their landline service.

The ACMA said that neither customer had registered for the Priority Assist service, but “both made plain their serious health conditions and their need for a working telephone service”. In both cases, the customers died, the ACMA said.

“Following these events, our initial focus is to address the underlying issue, namely the robustness of the system,” ACMA acting chair Creina Chapman said

“While it is not clear that any action by Telstra would have changed these tragic outcomes, priority assistance is critical to ensure that customers with life-threatening conditions are identified and provided with swift assistance and fault rectification.”

The ACMA found that in relation to the two services Telstra failed to provide information about Priority Assist on eight occasions and implement the emergency medical request procedures specified in its priority assistance policy on nine occasions.

“The ACMA is deeply concerned with Telstra’s failure to comply with its priority assistance obligations,” Chapman said.

“We acknowledge failures in our processes and systems meant these customers were not provided with the level of service that they required, and we apologise sincerely to the families concerned,” Telstra chief financial officer and head of strategy Robyn Denholm wrote in a blog entry.

“We are also sorry for adding to the families’ stress at what would have been a difficult and traumatic time.

“The ACMA has directed Telstra to appoint an independent person to review our Priority Assistance processes and historical complaints, and to ensure we have systems, processes and practices in place to support compliance.

“We are cooperating fully with the independent auditor to ensure they have all the information required to provide a comprehensive report to the ACMA.”

Under the terms of a direction from the ACMA Telstra must “implement and maintain effective systems, processes and practices for ensuring compliance” with the priority assistance policy, including ensuring that customers the telco has been informed have a life-threatening medical condition are provided with information about the service and how to register for it.

The ACMA said it will be “taking a very close look at the results of the independent audit” commissioned by Telstra and the telco’s response to any proposals arising from it.