Australian telco industry extends COVID hardship terms until September

Customers suffering from financial hardship that have entered into a deal with their telco will not be disconnected.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor
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The Australian telco industry has extended its COVID financial hardship terms until the end of September.

"Among other things, the COVID-19 principles provide that any customer who has entered into and complies with a financial hardship agreement will not be disconnected without their consent, regardless of when they entered that agreement," the Communications Alliance said on Tuesday.

It added the terms have been in place since April last year, and operate alongside existing "customer protections and financial hardship safeguards".

The extension arrives as four Australian capitals -- Sydney, Darwin, Brisbane, and Perth -- are in lockdown following a surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) was less enthusiastic about the extension.

"While we've welcomed the telco industry's vocal support for Australians experiencing hardship during the COVID crisis, the fact of the matter is that these principles don't actually offer any additional support for consumers in need," said ACCAN CEO Teresa Corbin. 

"They are simply re-emphasising their existing obligations under the TCP Code and Complaints Handling Standard.

"If ever there was a time for additional measures to safeguard consumers -- it's now. The impact of rolling lockdowns is taking a serious toll on small businesses and consumers alike."

ACCAN further called for small businesses to be able to hibernate services during lockdown.

"Small businesses should be able to pause their phone and internet connections while they are not in use so that they are faced with one less financial stress during this period," Corbin added.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, Optus announced it has opened a beta of its Call Translate feature to select customers.

Powered by Google, users are able to pick which language they want a call translated from and to in the My Optus app, and then make the call.

The feature has support for ten languages -- Arabic, English, Filipino, Greek, Hindi, Italian, Mandarin, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese -- with Optus saying more languages will be available soon.

"At Optus, connecting people is at the heart of what we do and Call Translate makes conversing possible for some of the many Australians who don't speak English as their first language," Optus vice president of TV, content, and product development Clive Dickens said.

"Whether you're an Australian resident, an international student, or a small business owner who needs help interacting in another language, whether it's making an appointment with the dentist, booking a restaurant, or arranging a sale, Optus Call Translate helps you communicate with confidence."

On its site, Optus said the accuracy of the service could be impacted by background noise, a caller's accent, and the language pair being used.

"Optus Call Translate will not be a certified or legal translation and is intended for personal, person to person conversations," it said.

"It shouldn't be used in situations where the translation needs to be relied on, such as medical procedures or legal contracts."

As someone that makes almost daily use of the live transcription feature with Google Recorder, those will be the only issues that appear if you are lucky. It's probably not great to use on a technical call between two people on the western side of the Pacific, or you could ask everyone to put on American accents.

If customers wish to take part in the beta, they need to be on a postpaid plan and use VoLTE. Emergency calls will not be translated.

"There will be an announcement to both people on the call before it starts to tell you what's about to happen. If the other person on the call doesn't want to proceed, then they can hang up at any time," Optus said in its FAQ.

Optus said it owns and runs the infrastructure used by Call Translate with Google Cloud AI "used to power the machine translation element". No recordings are stored long-term by the telco or Google, it said.

"We only temporarily capture your conversation for the purposes of translation and then that conversation is deleted. We never use your conversations for anything other than this purpose and they are never used to train the translation model," Optus said.

"Google stores text sent to the APIs for a short period of time to perform the translation, return results, and for debugging in case of service failure, after which it is automatically deleted."

Update at 3:35pm AEST, June 29: Added ACCAN comment.

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