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Aussie telco complaints down, but roaming bills buck trend

Australian telecommunications customers are complaining about their telco less according to the latest statistics, but disputes about global roaming bills over AU$5,000 are on the rise.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Complaints about telecommunications companies to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) have been lower in the last three months, according to the latest statistics released today, but the TIO has warned of an increase in complaints relating to global roaming bills over AU$5,000.

Australians were making fewer complaints to the TIO between July and September this year, in total 37,777 new complaints, being down 10.8 percent from the 42,353 complaints in the April to June quarter, and 26.1 percent down compared to the same period last year.

The TIO noted that the biggest improvement had been in how the telcos handled complaints, with the number of complaints in this area almost halved.

Complaints about mobile services took up the bulk of the figures, accounting for 57.5 percent. Customer service remained the biggest issue at 23 percent, with billing and faults issues not far behind.

Poor mobile phone coverage remained a top issue, too, with Brunswick East, Potts Point, and Doreen making the most complaints per population about mobile coverage.

But while overall complaints were down, the TIO said that it saw an increasing trend in complaints relating to customers receiving higher bills from using mobile services while overseas. Although global roaming complaints were down in the July to September quarter, the proportion of complaints relating to roaming bills over AU$5,000 was up to 10.4 percent from 4.7 percent compared to the same quarter in 2011.

In the last 15 months, the TIO estimated that it has dealt with global roaming complaints adding up to AU$8 million in charges from the telcos to customers.

In one of the examples provided, a customer who went on a nine-week holiday in Europe returned to Australia with a AU$75,000 bill, which jumped to AU$147,908 after subsequent bills. Another customer, who went to South Africa and thought his mobile was connected to the hotel Wi-Fi, managed to rack up a AU$38,000 bill.

"Some consumers who are travelling overseas for business or leisure are returning to telephone bills that are more costly than the trips themselves," Ombudsman Simon Cohen said.

"Where consumers have not been fully informed about the potential for these high charges and how they can protect themselves from these bills before international roaming is activated and while they are travelling, the potential for substantial detriment is very clear."

The TIO has recommended that telcos get informed consent from customers before activating international roaming, advise them of the costs, and restrict access to roaming when charges are accruing quickly.

The pressure from the TIO will likely be compounded by a move by Telecom New Zealand to introduce a flat daily fee for data use for Telecom New Zealand customers travelling abroad to a number of countries, including Australia.

On their plans to tackle global roaming charges, Telstra and Optus did not respond, but Vodafone said that the company was on the lookout for changes that it could make.

"We are constantly looking for ways to help our customers manage the costs associated with a growing desire for data, whether at home or away," Vodafone said.

The new Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code, which sets out how the telecommunications companies must treat their customers, was implemented in September and would not have had a meaningful impact on the TIO figures. However, telecommunications industry group Communications Alliance said that the drop in complaints showed early signs of success for the TCP code.

"We have seen many telcos working hard to implement the new and improved protections well ahead of any regulatory deadline, and the positive effects are being borne out in these welcome TIO data," CEO John Stanton said.

"While the latest data are encouraging, it is way too early to relax or declare 'mission accomplished' — much remains to be done."

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