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ACMA waves through further TCP Code updates

The ACMA has registered changes to the chapter dealing with telco compliance and monitoring obligations under its TCP code.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has approved further updates to its Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, saying they will provide more flexibility for smaller telcos and improve the "operational effectiveness" of the code compliance body.

The updated Chapter 9 will provide for all residential and small business telecommunications service providers to register their details with the Communications Alliance by May 3; telcos with more than 3,000 services in operation to annually lodge documents with the code compliance body Communications Compliance by September 1; and telcos with less than 3,000 services in operation to lodge annual compliance documents by April 29 or defer lodgement until September 1.

"As the industry's compliance improves, the code should evolve and adapt," said Richard Bean, who became acting chairman last month after Chris Chapman's 10-year tenure as chairman ended.

"In particular, this is an opportunity to reduce the reporting burden on smaller providers. This updated compliance and monitoring framework allows for more efficient industry self-regulation -- for small and larger providers -- while ensuring that all telecommunications providers continue to comply with the TCP Code."

The ACMA had published its other updates to the code in December, with the changes to chapters 1 to 8 simplifying how telcos are to provide information, removing duplication under Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act, and cutting down on the 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," Chapman said at the time.

Telecommunications industry bodies had criticised the changes, however, with the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) expressing 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."

Chapman last month told ZDNet that it is still too early to assess the impacts of the changes in the code, but denied that telcos would stop publishing such information.

"When more flexibility is enabled, there is necessarily a reduction in prescription," Chapman said.

"With mobile coverage, it is theoretically possible that coverage maps may not be used or published on websites, but then telcos would have to find another way of describing geographical coverage to everyone. The new code obliges suppliers to 'make available' information including 'the network coverage in Australia for the Telecommunications Services, which may include a map or diagram of mobile coverage'.

"Frankly, we are not anticipating that coverage maps will be discontinued or removed from websites, and the three mobile networks definitely still have coverage maps on their websites now."

For international roaming costs, Chapman said publishing universal information online is less valuable than customer-specific information being provided by telcos, anyway.

"For many telco customers, the requirements for the general information provision about roaming on websites has been superseded by the requirement to send more targeted information to travelling customers under our International Mobile Roaming Standard," he argued.

"The carriers appear keen to tell customers about their latest mobile roaming offers, which do seem to be delivering much better customer outcomes.

"In any event, the new code obliges suppliers to 'make available' information with respect to roaming, and we've not seen any material change to the type of roaming information being provided on websites."

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

Communications Alliance, on the other hand, welcomed the new code, although it 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 in December.

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, according to the ACMA.

In order to properly guage the positive effects of introducing the TCP Code, the ACMA offered a AU$154,000 tender in January for a company to conduct research into its impact.

The successful tenderer will conduct research into and collect data on customer satisfaction with telco services; customer satisfaction with carriage service providers' complaints-handling processes; bill shock occurrence, extent, and reasoning; consumer understanding of offers; consumer understanding of critical information summaries; and consumer awareness and usefulness of spend-management tools.