Authorities officially warned Telstra against cutting access to its services without providing the appropriate amount of notice to affected customers.
The Australian mobile operator had restricted or suspended its services to 5,410 customers over unpaid bills, but did so without notifying them within five working days. This was in violation of the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code, according to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).
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The regulator said in statement Friday it had issued Telstra with a formal warning over its actions, which took place between May and July last year.
During this time, affected customers were able to make outbound calls only to emergency services or Telstra. Some could not receive calls other than from emergency services or Telstra.
The TCP Code is part of the country's Telecommunications Act 1997 (otherwise known as "the Act") and outlines rules that apply to all telecommunications services to both residential and small business customers.
"Phone and internet connections are essential for our everyday lives. We use them for work, education, banking, health services, and social connection," said ACMA Chair Nerida O'Loughlin, noting that telcos had to take extra care when taking actions that disrupted people's services.
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"With the current cost of living pressures, many Australians are doing it tough. By limiting peoples' services without notice, Telstra likely caused these people significant additional stress," O'Loughlin said. "Telcos are obliged to help people facing financial hardship and there are a range of options available to help customers manage their bills."
ACMA said its current compliance priorities included protecting telco consumers who were going through financial hardship. Core to this was ensuring telcos complied with their obligations, in particular, those pertaining to service disruption, it said.
ACMA last month slapped Circles Australia with AU$253,080 ($169,600) over "large-scale breaches of rules" that served to protect the safety of Australians. The mobile services provider had failed to provide customer information to the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) on at least 60,000 occasions between January and August 2022. The database is used to locate people in an emergency, assist law enforcement activities, and facilitate the Emergency Alert Service.
All telcos are required to upload customer details to the IPND for every service they offer under the Telecommunications Act and IPND industry code. ACMA since 2018 had taken action against 31 telcos for not complying with the IPND rules, dishing out penalties totaling almost AU$4 million ($2,676,580).
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Australian regulators last November passed legislation to increase financial penalties for data privacy violators, pushing up maximum fines for serious or repeated breaches to AU$50 million ($32.34 million), from its current AU$2.22 million ($1.47 million), which is three times the value of any benefit obtained through the data misuse.