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Australian telco regulator powers boosted

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has given extra powers to ACMA to force new regulation on telecommunications companies that fail to meet the standards in consumer protection code.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Despite a pledge from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to give the telecommunications industry in Australia some time to get the new Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) code working, the authority has today been given additional powers to reprimand carriers that fail to comply with the code.

Stephen Conroy

Stephen Conroy
(Credit: Josh Taylor/ZDNet)

The TCP code — which outlines how telecommunications companies can interact with their customers — went into effect this month. The implementation begins with new complaint-handling rules, credit management rules and advertising information rules, while standardised account information will come in by March 2013, and spend management tools for the bigger companies must be in place by September 2013.

Under the code, ACMA can order a provider that has breached the code to comply with its provisions, and if the provider breaches the code again, that provider can be taken to court and may face a penalty of up to AU$250,000.

Today, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced that the authority would get extra powers to issue a service provider determination, and force more regulation on carriers that are failing to comply with the code.

"This will provide the ACMA with the flexibility to introduce consumer protection measures if satisfactory consumer outcomes are not being delivered," he said in a speech at the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) conference in Sydney this morning.

"A service provider determination is a rule making power that applies to all service providers and is enforceable by the ACMA."

Conroy said that these determinations would be quickly dealt with by ACMA, but would still consult industry first."If the outcomes we seek for consumers are not occurring ,the ACMA will now have the ability to act rapidly to place new enforceable requirements on service providers," he said.

ACMA Chairman Chris Chapman said that these investigations would likely take less than four months, which is the current average investigation time for broadcast code of conduct breach.

"The service provider rules allow a much more targeted, timely, circumstance-specific outcome that has a far lesser time scale and process attached to it," he told journalists.

Industry representative group, the Communications Alliance, said that the ACMA's new powers should only be used if the TCP code fails.

"Certainly, we believe that regulatory determinations should not be made in circumstances where the same outcome could be achieved via the TCP Code," CEO John Stanton said in a statement.

"We welcome the confirmation from the minister and ACMA chair, Mr Chris Chapman, that the ACMA will consult with affected parties — which would include the telco industry — before making any determinations."

ACCAN gets extra funding

Conroy today also announced that ACCAN would receive AU$2 million in funding per year, out to 2017. This funding comes from a levy placed on telecommunications companies, and as a result, the funding does not impact on Labor's plans to deliver a budget surplus by 2012-2013.

Although the organisation had originally asked for additional funding, CEO Terese Corbin said that she was happy with the funding that was obtained.

"We're not disappointed, given the current budget funding climate. We're actually very pleased to be maintaining where we're at, so we're not going backwards," she told journalists. "We'll have to develop other ways to keep our momentum going, but our goal ultimately was to maintain ACCAN's presence in this industry."

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning reported that Labor was eying the potential to going to the polls in February 2013, earlier than the expected November 2013 election. If the Coalition wins the election, ACCAN's funding is not guaranteed. Corbin said that she was confident that Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull would see the value of ACCAN.

"The mechanism for the funding was actually established under the Howard government, a Coalition Government," she said. "I expect the Coalition [would have the view] that the consumer voice is an important part of the mix in what is a really dynamic industry."

Corbin said that ACCAN was now looking to have more partnerships with industry, and would start looking at the consumer implications of copyright reform and cloud computing.

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