Homes in limbo as copper switch-off forges ahead despite NBN's HFC pause

Leaving a 90-year old woman without a home phone service for weeks.

A 90-year old Melbournian woman -- living alone and reliant on an emergency alert bracelet -- was left without a home phone last month. Where responsibility lies regarding the lack of phone services is unclear.

Brighton's Margaret Burchill had her home phone service cut on February 18 as Telstra Wholesale switched off the copper to her building, despite the fact that new connections in her area were put on hold as part of NBN's HFC pause

The company responsible for rolling out the NBN postponed new HFC connections at the start of February, due to a shortage of HFC Network Termination Devices (NTDs) caused by COVID-19-related chipset shortages. The HFC connection schedule is expected to resume in May or June.

"Disconnections have only been revised for HFC customers who were scheduled to be disconnected from February to April 2021," according to an NBN spokesperson.

"This premise was scheduled for disconnection in March 2020, which was extended by Telstra until February 2021 due to COVID-19, and Telstra did not seek any further extension of time for the customer to migrate their legacy services to the NBN."

Burchill did not receive postal notifications of the impending cut-off, apparently due to an address mismatch in the NBN rollout map.

Her service was then cut despite NBN's decree that HFC connections would continue during the HFC pause for "medically vulnerable people" and "premises that have had their copper-based legacy services disconnected".

According to a Telstra Wholesale spokesperson, Burchill's disconnection date wasn't further extended as the responsibility fell on iiNet as her retail service provider (RSP) to raise the issue with Telstra Wholesale before her disconnection date.

In response, an iiNet spokesperson said Telstra Wholesale did not inform iiNet of Burchill's disconnection date. 

"Telstra is required to give one months' notice to the service provider, so the service provider can issue a final notice to the customer," according to iiNet.

"As a result, we were unable to send the customer a final notice and the customer did not have an opportunity to contact us to request a further extension."

When Burchill's phone line went dead on February 18, her son Scott Burchill emailed iiNet. He was told his mother's home could not be reconnected via copper due to the switch-off, nor could it be connected to the NBN due to the HFC pause.

While his mother could "lodge an NBN pre-order", iiNet's customer support told him that she would be without a home phone -- clashing with NBN's instructions to RSPs.

Burchill was left in broadband limbo until ZDNet raised the matter with NBN on February 23. An installer connected her home to the HFC network the following day, but it still took two weeks for her iiNet NBN service to be activated so her home phone service could be restored.

Initially, an iiNet spokesperson claimed it had resolved the issue when Burchill's son first notified iiNet that his mother's line had been disconnected. This contradicts his email exchanges with two iiNet customer support agents, who both said he could only "lodge an NBN pre-order" and wait.

After further investigation, a different iiNet spokesperson confirmed that iiNet did not resolve the issue, insisting it could not lodge the work order with NBN because it did not have the customer's consent.

"When the customer's family member contacted us on February 18 to advise their phone service wasn't working, it was escalated internally," according to iiNet.

"Between February 19-22, we made a number of unsuccessful efforts to encourage the customer to move to the NBN. A customer must request an NBN service via an RSP, and an RSP cannot lodge a work order with the NBN without a customer's consent."

Burchill's son disputes iiNet's account of events, saying "that simply doesn't add up".

"As soon as I contacted iiNet, I naturally asked them to connect her to the NBN as soon as possible," he said.

NBN and RSPs are required to manage the migration of a consumer's legacy service to an NBN service in a way that minimises disruption to the continuity of their service, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority's (ACMA) NBN Service Continuity Standard.

"That means both NBN Co and a consumer's RSP have responsibilities for ensuring that consumers are not left without a service during the migration to the NBN," an ACMA spokesperson said.

While the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is unable to comment on individual cases, a spokesperson for the consumer watchdog said it would be concerned if a consumer's service was shut down without a replacement being made available. 

"We would be particularly concerned if this was a priority assistance customer, as special arrangements exist to prevent this situation," the ACCC spokesperson said.

"The ACCC expects NBN Co and retail service providers to work together to prevent any consumer from being left without an active service, particularly while there are problems with access to NTDs."

Updated at 5:45pm AEST, 5 March 2021: updated headline to reflect current NBN HFC pause situation.

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