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Complaints to TIO reveal impact COVID-19 had on consumers and small businesses

Complaints received between March and June 2020 were directly related to the pandemic.
Written by Aimee Chanthadavong, Contributor

The latest report by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has revealed that there was a direct correlation between the coronavirus pandemic, and the complaints it received between March and June 2020.

The TIO's systemic investigation report uncovered how there was an increase in complaints from mid-March by consumers about not being able to contact their providers. By early April, the average number of daily complaints by consumers being unable to reach their providers peaked at 130.

The TIO said its investigation showed it was around the same time when several providers with offshore operations were significantly affected by COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, which resulted in consumers experiencing delays.

The TIO also saw from late March, a rise in complaints around faults and connections, specifically around slow internet speeds and dropouts, technicians missing their appointments, and delays in receiving equipment, such as modems. By mid-April, TIO received an average of 360 complaints about faults and connections a day.

"The rise in fault and connection complaints for internet services was steeper and longer than for mobile and landline services. The rise aligned with increased demand for internet services during the shift to home-based work and study," the report stated.

Additionally, the TIO report highlighted how temporary relief measures by providers resulted in fewer complaints about debt-related issues, including financial hardship and repayment arrangement, between March and May 2020.

However, when debt-related complaints were received, the TIO said it was because consumers could not contact their provider, or when they could, they were informed that their provider was not prioritising billing enquiries and it resulted in consumers suffering financially.

The TIO also took the opportunity to acknowledged how there was a timely response by telecommunications providers, NBN, the government, and industry regulators when it came to providing temporary financial relief for consumers and businesses.

Some of these relief measures included NBN offering internet providers up to 40% of additional capacity at no cost until August 19, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) pausing its NBN entry-level access pricing and wholesale service standards inquiries, and NBN limiting the amount of maintenance it would do on its network.

The ACCC also recently granted NBN and five retailers -- Telstra, Optus, TPG, Vodafone, and Vocus -- authorisation to create a working group to handle network congestion and coordinate financial support for consumers and small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.

"The pandemic has thrown the telecommunications industry and its consumers into a perfect storm. The delivery of reliable phone and internet services was challenged by the closure of overseas call centres and the move of telco operations staff to a work-from-home environment. This collided with our need to remain connected through reliable phone and internet services at a time of heightened uncertainty," Ombudsman Judi Jones said. 

"The pandemic has stress-tested the industry and government relief measures and stretched the capacity of telco providers. It is encouraging to see the industry's extension of the telecommunications hardship principles until the end of September and the steps providers have taken so far to respond to the financial impact on consumers."

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network CEO Teresa Corbin acknowledged how the report provided insight into the impact COVID-19 had on the telco sector, adding it also signalled the need for telcos to implement backup procedures to resolve problems quickly. 

"The TIO's report shows the serious negative impacts that consumers can face when telco services fail and providers are slow to respond. Our phone and internet connections are essential services in these times and we need to ensure that providers treat them as such," she said.

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