ACMA updates telco consumer protection code

The telco industry regulator's updated TCP Code will make things simpler for telcos, but has been criticised by industry bodies for making information less clear for consumers.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has published its updated Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, saying it will provide more flexibility and simplicity for telcos -- but industry bodies have claimed the code will make information on services less clear for consumers.

The new code [PDF], registered on Thursday, simplifies how telcos are to provide information, removes duplication under Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act, and cuts down on repetition of obligations throughout the code.

"The updated TCP Code reinforces the ACMA's commitment to working with key stakeholders to ensure regulation remains relevant and effective, while giving industry more flexibility in how it provides the necessary information to consumers (its customers)," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman.

The TCP Code, which first came into effect in July 2012, serves the primary purposes of requiring telcos to provide consumers with clear information about what their mobile phone plans offer, including a two-page summary of every plan; notify customers about how much voice and data they have used under their plan; and suggest spend-management tools to prevent future overuse.

Customer complaints handling was also made more effective and timely under the code.

The TCP Code drove a fall in consumer complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) of 35.8 percent since 2012, from 193,702 in 2011-12 down to 124,417 in 2014-15.

The code has also resulted in generating AU$545 million in savings for customers per year.

Industry body the Communications Alliance welcomed the new code, but added that more could have been changed in line with industry consultation.

"Industry had hoped to achieve even more substantial reform as part of this revision, but the co-regulatory process necessarily involves a reflection of the priorities of a range of stakeholders including consumers, regulators, industry, and others," said Comms Alliance CEO John Stanton.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), on the other hand, expressed dissatisfaction with the revisions, saying information on services and plans would be less clear for consumers.

ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin warned the industry that she would be "keeping a close eye" on the impact of the updated code.

"In a backward step, changes introduced today mean telcos will no longer be obliged to publish important information on their websites, such as coverage maps, international roaming information, and contact details for financial hardship staff," Corbin said.

"It's now up to the telco how they provide this information, and we are concerned that this will particularly harm consumers who face accessibility barriers, and are reliant on web-based information. It may affect consumers' ability to make informed purchasing decisions."

ACCAN claimed that it was successful in lobbying the ACMA to ensure telcos cannot use terms like "unlimited", "free", and "cap" in advertising under the new code, however.

According to ACCAN, industry consultation is still ongoing for Chapter 9 of the TCP Code, which regards compliance and monitoring obligations.

The ACMA on Wednesday also tabled its annual Communications Report 2014-15 [PDF] in Parliament, revealing that Australians have been rapidly taking up streaming services.

According to the report, 9.62 million people -- or 53 percent of the population -- watched video content online in the first half of calendar 2015, with 34 percent of Australians watching online TV weekly as of June.

"At July 2015, Roy Morgan Research estimated Netflix was in 8 percent of Australian homes, reaching 1.89 million people aged 14 and over," the ACMA report says.

"Homes with traditional subscription television (Foxtel) were also subscribing to Netflix at a similar rate -- 7.3 percent of Foxtel homes also had a Netflix subscription. This research shows the growth of Netflix since its Australian launch has been rapid, from 419,000 homes in May 2015 to 737,000 in July 2015."

Australia now has a smartphone penetration rate of 74 percent, the report says, with 13.41 million people using a smartphone as of May 2015 -- a growth of 11.1 percent year on year. Mobile phones remain at a penetration rate of 93 to 94 percent, with 20.99 million users, continuing to indicate levels of saturation.

The ACMA report also revealed that Telstra's service faults are increasing as its response time decreases: Four or more faults experienced on an individual service over a 60-day period numbered 219 for the year to June 30, 2015, the highest in five years and an increase of 42.21 percent from last year's 154, while five or more faults over a 365-day period reached 36, an increase of 100 percent over last year's 18.

The average length of time for Telstra to restore fault-affected services also increased by 69.8 percent, from 65.07 hours in June 2014 up to 110.52 hours in June 2015.