Industry code works best: Comms Alliance

An overhaul by the telecommunications industry of its consumer protection code has improved and will, with adjustments, improve customer service to the levels required by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), according to the Communications Alliance.

An overhaul by the telecommunications industry of its consumer protection code has improved and will, with adjustments, improve customer service to the levels required by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), according to the Communications Alliance.

In its draft report, published at the beginning of June, ACMA made six recommendations aimed at reducing the high number of customer complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), which in 2009-10 topped 210,000.

The recommendations included introducing clearer marketing and advertising, a product disclosure summary, benchmarking complaint numbers against industry levels, ISO complaints handling procedures and a tool to allow customers to see exactly how much they have spent with a telco at any one point, in order to reduce the incidence of "bill shock". It also recommended an overhaul of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO).

In response to the recommendations made in the draft report, the Communications Alliance said that revisions to the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code would improve customer complaint levels, but that the industry would refine the code to meet ACMA expectations, expecting further discussions with the regulator to aid the amendments. It suggested that once the TCP code is finalised and registered, metrics should be established to indicate whether telcos are meeting their requirements under the code. This would be reviewed by an independent body made up of consumer and industry bodies, the Alliance said.

Before this is developed, however, the Comms Alliance has proposed opening talks with ACMA about what other stakeholders should be brought on-board, whether the metrics should be publicly available, and how consumer complaints would be measured across the industry.

"Industry will continue to advance these discussions, and looks forward to engaging with the ACMA and relevant stakeholders," the Alliance said.

The ACMA has warned that if the TCP code doesn't meet its expectations, it may seek to regulate the industry further.

"Unless the revisions to the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCP), currently being undertaken by the industry, measure up to our requirements, I suspect we will be looking at a very different regulatory landscape in 2012," ACMA chair Chris Chapman said in a statement.

In regards to the ACMA recommendation that telcos implement a real-time usage tool, the Comms Alliance said that it would not be possible for telcos to put together such a tool in a short amount of time.

"It is clear that, to the best of the industry's knowledge, no supplier in Australia would be able to provide such real-time information for all major components," it said. "Nor are suppliers able to easily or quickly adjust their IT systems to do so. The time frames to do so would be far above the 12 months period that the ACMA alludes to when referring to transitional arrangements."

The Comms Alliance said that any investment costs for such a tool would be passed onto consumers, and suggested that usage tools already in place would be available, allowing telcos to alert customers within 48 hours of how many calls, or how much data, they have used.

It welcomed the proposal suggesting that telcos provide a summary of product information to consumers, but warned that key information about products risked being buried if large amounts of information needed to be disclosed.

Among the other 41 responses that ACMA received on the draft report, Optus, Telstra, Vodafone, Internode, Macquarie Telecom and the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association all believed that the revision of the TCP Code would meet the requirements outlined by ACMA. However, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) chief Teresa Corbin said that the TCP Code could not possibly meet all of ACMA's demands.

"We're quite surprised, given the threat made by the regulator to regulate if the industry failed to deliver on certain non-negotiables, that the industry hasn't offered up anything substantive to address the ACMA's concerns," Corbin said in a statement.

"Instead, they've tinkered with, and pointed to, their voluntary Code as a solution. The current TCP Code has categorically failed to address basic levels of customer service and complaint handling and, during the course of this inquiry, complaints to the Ombudsman have risen to record highs. It's very hard to believe that a revised Code alone will produce a different result."

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