Bushfire and floods to blame for TIO complaints in Q3

Total complaints reached 32,441 during the quarter, a 13% rise from Q2.

Total complaints by residential consumers and small businesses were down almost 14% year on year between January to March 2020, but rose 13% compared to the previous quarter's result, according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) Q3 complaints report.

During the period, the TIO received a total of 32,441 complaints, down from the same period last year when it recorded 37,599 complaints, but up on Q2, which reported 28,720 complaints at the time.

Internet services was the most complained about service type, accounting for one-third of total complaints during Q3. Following closely behind was mobile services at 32%, or 10,500 complaints.

This was consistent with results that have been produced each quarter for the last year, except for the previous quarter where complaints about mobile services exceeded internet services complaints.

Complaints about not having a working phone or internet service reached 5,400, nearly a 70% increase from the previous quarter.

The TIO explained the quarter on quarter increase in complaints during Q3 coincided with bushfire and flood season, which greatly impacted consumers in New South Wales in February and March.

"The resilience of Australia's phone and internet services has been tested in 2020. During the devastation of the bushfires, remaining connected to family, friends and community was critical to our safety," Ombudsman Judi Jones said. 

"While the COVID-19 pandemic did not impact Australia until the end of the quarter, it has also highlighted our need for reliable phone and internet services."

The TIO Q3 complaints report also revealed there were 16,310 faults and connection complaints, making up 50.3% of total complaints during the period, compared to 47% in Q2. Of those, 4,689 were due to services delivered over the national broadband network.  

Complaints from residential consumers increased by almost 14% to 27,553 in comparison to the previous quarter. For residential consumers, problems with missed appointments replaced complaints about termination fees in the top ten issues.

Meanwhile, complaints from small businesses increased to 4,888, up from 4,528 recorded against the previous quarter. The top 10 issues impacting small businesses remain unchanged from Q2. Poor customer service, billing issues, and faults and connections problems continued to be the most complained about issues by small businesses. 

When it came to complaints by providers, Boost Tel dropped out of the top 10 list and was replaced by Primus Telecom, which squeezed in at ninth spot.

The Communications Alliance agreed the bushfires had placed pressure on the telecommunications network during the quarter, but noted overall results were positive.

"Q3 has historically had the highest number of complaints to the TIO, and despite the impact of these natural disasters, we are encouraged that this is the lowest number of complaints for Q3 in three years," he said.

"Unfortunately, the devastating bushfires and floods are not the only crises facing Australians this year. As noted by the TIO, this report does not reflect the impacts of COVID-19, as those impacts began at the end of the quarter. Industry is working closely with the TIO, regulators, and government to support Australians to stay connected through this crisis."

Earlier this month, the federal government announced it would spend AU$37.1 million to improve the resiliency of the nation's telco infrastructure in the wake of the Black Summer bushfires.  

The largest portion of the funding would be allocated towards upgrading battery backup power at mobile base stations under the Mobile Network Hardening Program name. A total of AU$18 million would be spent on the hardening program, which includes AU$10 million from the Mobile Black Spot Program.  

A report prepared by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found only 3% of mobile tower outages from 19 December 2019 to 31 January 2020 were due to fire damage, and of the 1,390 total facilities that were impacted by the fires outages, only 1% of incidents were a direct result of fire damage. Loss of power was the main cause of outages, being responsible for 88% of all outages over the same period.

In response to the bushfires, NBN said in February it would look to preinstall satellite links at evacuation centres

"We are very conscious that these climatic conditions are likely to continue and indeed to get worse, and we're conscious that as a network we need to test our resiliency, make sure that we have a network that can either recover quickly or is backed up in some way," NBN CEO Stephen Rue said.

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