Telco customer code goes to the regulator

Summary:The Communications Alliance has submitted its revised Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), but the code has been rejected by a peak consumer action body.

The Communications Alliance has submitted its revised Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), but the code has been rejected by a peak consumer action body.

The board of the alliance, which represents more than 100 telecommunications organisations in Australia, approved the revised code yesterday, and it has been submitted to the ACMA for approval.

The new code aims to simplify advertising, mobile plans and bills, and provide more information in order to prevent so-called "bill shock".

The new draft code released yesterday said:

  • Telcos must display in large print advertisements for mobile plans the cost for making a two-minute standard national call on a mobile, the cost for sending an SMS in Australia and the cost for consuming 1 megabyte of data in Australia
  • There must be clearer advertising rules, such as avoiding using terms such as "unlimited" in advertising, and advertising actual download speeds rather than peak download speeds
  • Telcos must provide a summary of offer to customers before they buy post-paid products
  • There must be better "spend management tools" that allow customers to view their monthly usage for calls, SMS and data to avoid bill shock
  • There should be stronger protection for credit and debt management for customers, including requirements for notifications of payments due, failed credit checks and when accounts will be passed onto collection agencies.

The Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said the code also had stronger compliance measures including "naming and shaming" telcos who are found to breach the code, and the telcos must promote the telecommunications industry ombudsman (TIO) to customers as an alternative avenue if they are unhappy with the response from the telco. There will also be a new oversight body funded by the industry to ensure telcos are complying with the code. The new oversight body won't have any ability to force a telco to comply with the code, but will be able to refer matters to the ACMA for investigation.

The alliance was working on constructing the structure and determining funding for this new oversight body, but Stanton said that the Communications Alliance wouldn't appoint anyone to the new body until the ACMA had accepted the code.

Following the publishing of the draft code in October last year, the Comms Alliance has taken on feedback from the industry and the public on possible changes, and Stanton said there had been a number of revisions.

"We agreed to extend the expenditure management tools to voice and SMS," he said, saying that expanding from data was a much more complex ask for the industry.

"It is much more difficult from a systems point of view ... to provide that notification function from voice and SMS, but the industry looked hard at the recommendations ... and decided it would make a commitment to be able to provide that capability."

He said the summary of offer will be called the "Plan Essentials", and the organisation changed the definitions of "complaint" and "urgent complaint" in the code on the back of ACMA recommendations. Customers will also be able to view their billing history for 24 months now instead of just 13.

The ACMA had sought unit pricing for calls to be in one-minute blocks; however, Stanton said that two minutes is more representative of average phone calls. It was also impossible to have near-real-time account management tools, he said, because apart from major operators like Telstra, Optus or Vodafone — which own their infrastructure — it is near impossible for a telco to have real-time billing data. Instead, the code allows for a maximum of 48 hours delay between notification and charges.

In releasing the ACMA's report into the telecommunications industry in September last year, ACMA chair Chris Chapman issued a strong warning to the industry to refine the code, or face the regulatory consequences.

"If the industry doesn't develop a code that addresses the ACMA's concerns, the ACMA will mandate changes through direct regulation," Chapman said at the time.

Although the majority of the board approved the code, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) voted against the revised code, stating that it failed to meet the five recommendations of the ACMA's report.

"This was the industry's last chance to avoid regulation and we don't believe the ACMA will be able to register this code, which may mean that the days of industry self-regulation are over," ACCAN spokesperson Elise Davidson said.

"Despite all the best efforts of those involved, including both consumer and industry representatives, the industry as a whole just wasn't able to make the major changes that were necessary to once and for all fix customer and complaint handling across the telco industry."

Stanton said that the code is preferable to stronger regulation because the code is workable for the industry.

"It is a code that has been developed with very strong industry input, which means its solutions are implementable and they are practical," he said.

"One of the things I think is meritorious about industry codes is that they are developed through industry eyes, through providers knowing what it is possible for them to do [and] what will work from a technical and commercial and customer point of view."

The ACMA will now review the code, and Stanton said he expected the industry to begin implementing it within months if it is accepted.

Topics: Telcos

About

Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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