Government seeking research on telco code impact

The ACMA will award AU$154,000 to the successful tenderer to conduct research into the effectiveness of the TCP Code on bill shock, complaints handling, and customer satisfaction.

The Australian government has gone to tender for a company to conduct research into the impact of changes brought into the industry by updates to the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code.

In particular, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is seeking information on spend-management tools and alerts and customers' experiences with telecommunications services and providers.

"This ATM [approach to market] is for the provision of quantitative research, with a possible qualitative element, to further our understanding of the impact on consumers of changes to the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code and other outcomes of the Reconnecting the Customer Inquiry," the tender document says.

"This research will build on previous evidence gathered by the ACMA to provide updated information to assist the ACMA to evaluate the effectiveness of the changes made to the TCP Code in 2012, now that the code has been in place for a longer period of time.

"The context of broader and ongoing changes in the telecommunications sector will also need to be addressed to ensure that the contributing or associated factors are well understood, and that current concerns for telecommunications consumers are explored."

The successful tenderer will be granted AU$154,000 to 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.

The ACMA also wants information on the use of media-streaming services.

Tender applications are due by February 12 at 10am AEDT, with the contract expected to be executed in late February and the work to be completed by November 30. The report presented will be used by the ACMA to determine its education and compliance activities, and will be used during the ACMA's 2017 review of the TCP Code.

The 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 critical information 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 and the subsequent bill shock.

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.

The ACMA in December updated the TCP Code, saying its changes have simplified how telcos provide information, removed duplication under Australian Consumer Law and the Privacy Act, and cut 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)," ACMA chairman Chris Chapman said.

However, industry body the Communications Alliance pointed out that more could have been changed while updating the TCP Code 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) in turn expressed dissatisfaction with the TCP Code revisions, saying critical information summaries on services and plans would be less clear for consumers.

"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," ACCAN CEO Teresa 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."

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