NBN complaints up 70 percent for the year

While overall telco complaints were down 10.5 percent, consumer complaints about NBN services skyrocketed by almost 70 percent.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has published its Annual Report 2014-15, revealing that although the number of consumer complaints about the National Broadband Network (NBN) was low, at 6,715 complaints, it amounted to an increase of 68.6 percent over the previous year.

According to Acting Ombudsman Diane Carmody, most of the NBN complaints were due to delays in being connected to the network, as well as technicians missing installation appointments with customers -- signalling a lack of communication between NBN, consumers, and retail service providers (RSPs).

According to the report [PDF], connection delays made up 1,360 of NBN complaints, while 595 were about fully unusable services and 384 were about missed connection appointments.

"While the numbers of NBN-related complaints are relatively small, at 6,700, they have a big impact on consumers," Carmody said.

"It can be extremely frustrating and inconvenient for consumers when technicians do not show up for scheduled appointments, particularly if the consumer has taken a day off work.

"The challenge for NBN and retail service providers is to ensure the roll out of this highly anticipated technology is a positive experience for consumers."

The TIO in May similarly reported that it had received 1,635 NBN-related complaints during January to March 2015 -- a 15.6 percent increase compared to the previous quarter. Connection complaints made up 44.8 percent of these.

"The customer is at the heart of everything we do. We will continue to work with RSPs [retail service providers] -- who retail our network to consumers -- to continue to improve service levels and customer satisfaction," an NBN spokesperson told ZDNet at the time.

In order to minimise connection delays, the government released its draft Migration Assurance Policy in July, outlining plans on how to migrate customers onto the NBN, and how Telstra will disconnect its copper and hybrid fibre-coaxial (HFC) networks thereafter.

The draft policy [PDF] drew on industry consultation as well as the migration experiences of the initial 31 rollout locations, and called for migration data and information to be shared between Telstra Wholesale, NBN, RSPs, and application service providers in a "timely, accurate, and consistent" manner in order to mitigate delays.

Data to be shared will include the fixed-line footprint list, which outlines all premises that have been passed by NBN's fixed-line network; the historical footprint list, which contains details on premises that can be served by the NBN; Telstra's disconnection list; location identification data; order information between Telstra and its customers, and between retailers and NBN; and information on Telstra's active copper services.

In June, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) approved the migration plan, seven months after Telstra and NBN had entered into a revised AU$11 billion deal allowing NBN to take ownership of Telstra's copper and HFC network assets. The modified agreement came as a result of the Coalition government's decision to move away from a full fibre-to-the-premises rollout to the present so-called multi-technology mix (MTM) network incorporating fibre to the node, fibre to the building, and HFC.

"The revised migration plan will better protect consumers from premature disconnection of their phone and internet services," ACCC chairman Rod Sims said.

In September 2014, Communications Minister cum Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull began consultation to modify the migration process, after the original May 2014 deadline to get residents off the legacy copper had failed.

Three months after that deadline, there were premises in the first 15 regions "still subject to the migration process", again as a result of poor coordination and communication between NBN and RSPs and inadequate construction that prevented premises that had been passed by the NBN to actually connect to it.

However, NBN complaints made up only 5.4 percent of all complaints to the TIO this financial year, with the 2014-15 annual report recording more than 124,000 complaints made about mobile, landline, and internet services during FY15.

"More than 124,000 is a huge number of complaints, and shows the telecommunications industry has a long way to go," Carmody pointed out.

Despite the high number, however, this constituted a drop of 10.5 percent year on year in the fourth consecutive year of telco-related complaints to the TIO decreasing.

Mobile complaints were down 21.1 percent, to 57,983 -- the lowest number since 2007-08. The TIO attributed this to greater transparency in data usage through alerts to consumers, required under the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code, as well as improvements in coverage due to continuing investment in mobile infrastructure.

"Improved coverage through telco investment in mobile towers, and usage and spending alerts that help consumers control data and phone usage, have contributed to this improvement," Carmody said.

The primary purposes of the TCP Code are to require 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.

Since coming into effect, 178 formal warnings, 35 directions to comply, and one infringement notice have been sent out by industry regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) under the TCP Code.

On Thursday, the ACMA directed six telecommunications service providers to comply with the TCP Code after failing to lodge a statement of code compliance for the last two years, and in September, it formally warned 25 telcos over failing to lodge a statement of code compliance.

"The ACMA will continue to ensure industry participants work within industry 'accountability measures', so the ACMA will take action (such as issuing directions) if necessary," said ACMA chairman Chris Chapman on Thursday.

The TIO's annual report also recorded an increase in internet and landline services complaints due to "connection delays and faults".

By contrast, complaints in January to March numbered 33,141 in total, up 12.1 percent from the previous quarter, but down 8.6 percent year on year.

During that quarter, complaints about internet services increased by 3.8 percent year on year, to 8,740. Complaints to the TIO about delays in connecting new internet services were up 41.5 percent, from 992 to 1,404, and complaints about fully unusable services increased by 45.7 percent quarter on quarter, to 1,820.

Landline complaints were up by 4.3 percent from Q1 2014 to Q1 2015, at 9,305 complaints -- the highest quarterly number in two years.

Mobile complaints decreased by 20 percent from the same quarter in 2014-15, but were slightly higher over the previous quarter.

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