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TIO warns of hardship spike after NBN financial assistance winds up

The TIO had expected an uptick in complaints regarding financial hardship during the pandemic, but these types of complaints actually dropped off because of industry and government financial support.
Written by Campbell Kwan, Contributor

More consumers are expected to experience hardship in paying their National Broadband Network (NBN) bills as Australia's telcos look to eventually turn off the tap for financial support, a Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) representative told a Senate committee on Friday.

Standing before the Joint Standing Committee on the National Broadband Network on Friday, TIO Judi Jones said the financial support given by government and industry had stalled any potential uptick of complaints that the agency expected from consumers.

"We've waited to see an increase in complaints about hardship and problems paying a bill -- we think that will come, but by the end of the year it wasn't showing up as a particular issue. It was starting to rise but it actually dropped off as an important issue in the pandemic because of financial support," Jones said.

"We are anticipating, as government and providers wind back support measures, we'll see more hardship issues for residential and small business consumers," Jones said. 

She noted, however, that there has been a 1,500% increase of consumer complaints during the most recent quarter in the category of being unable to contact internet providers when experiencing connection issues.

The latest report by the TIO, released in July, had revealed 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 that 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.

"What we did see in their complaints that came to us was the impact was more important for consumers, so not having a working internet service impacted not just watching Netflix in the evening when you were home," Jones told the committee. 

"It has impacted your kid's ability to learn, and your ability to be able to continue to be employed by working from home, or for small businesses without pivoting to have a completely online interaction with the consumers."

The proportion of fault and connection complaints from small businesses also increased from 14% to 15.7% quarter-over-quarter in relation to total fault and connection complaints for services delivered over the NBN in the most recent quarter, Jones said.

When asked by committee chair Tony Pasin whether the amount of fault and connection complaints from small businesses was disproportionate to those made by residential consumers, Jones was hesitant to provide a clear answer, noting small business customers do not necessarily use a small business account.

She explained that small businesses operating from home could potentially use a residential account and that there was not enough information on samples and operations. 

"It has been challenging for small businesses and indeed for residential consumers when their network is not performing, whether there is a degradation of the copper meaning that it is not receiving the optical services, or citizens are not receiving service that they can see as available in other areas," she said.

Jones also said the proportion of unresolved and escalated complaints had increased, which reflected an emerging picture of complexity. 

As the NBN rollout moves into its later stages, the TIO expects to continue to see more complaints about connections that have been postponed due to their complexity. 

"Complex connections often take additional time to complete and may require a specific skillset, removal of other infrastructure, liaison with external parties such as strata management, or a fix that falls outside the scope of a standard installation," TIO wrote in its submission to the committee.

Facing this increased complexity, TIO said it has formed specialist teams to handle these escalated complaints and continued to work closely with phone and internet providers to understand the barriers to resolving these issues, and how to prevent the issues from occurring. 

Last month, NBN announced its plan to spend AU$700 million to create 240 "business fibre zones" that will cover 700,000 business premises. Being part of a zone will allow businesses to get a full fibre Enterprise Ethernet connection, as well as reduced rates and connection fees.

Two days later, it announced that 2 million premises on fibre to the node would have the opportunity to move to full fibre, but only an additional 400,000 are expected to take it up by the end of the fiscal year 2024. However, NBN users that live or work within multi-dwelling units are not included as part of the upgrade.

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