10 November 2011


A range of Commonwealth and state/territory agencies have recurrently drawn attention to poor practice in the consumer telecommunication sector and exhorted industry to do better, with ACMA for example commenting "The way in which the telecommunications industry in Australia deals with its customers must change, and change immediately".

On reading the latest annual report from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman [TIO], the private sector entity enshrined in Australia's co-regulatory regime, we might wonder whether that message is getting through.

The TIO reports that there were 197,682 new complaints, up 18% on the previous year. This reversed the 5% decrease in new complaints reported in 2009-10. New complaints about Vodafone mobile services almost tripled to over 32,000, peaking in January 2011 (more than 5,700). While Vodafone complaints took a downward turn in February 2011 (more than 4,200), their complaint levels in June 2011 (almost 2,800) were still more than double the number received in June 2010.

There was a 180% increase in the number of complaints (around 56,000) regarding mobile phone faults. The two most common complaints included poor coverage (28,634 issues - a 609% increase) and dropouts 6,941 issues (a 482% increase).

Complaints related to smart phones increased, with for example a 26% increase in disputes about internet charges. Other smart phone disputes included complaints about -
• the bill total (10,425 issues or a 52% increase),
• early termination fees (5,748 issues or a 9.6% increase)
• customer service and complaint handling issues, including inadequate time and quality of attention given to consumers (almost 51,000 consumers mentioned this as an issue in their complaint)
• service providers not acting on the promises they make – almost 42,300 consumers mentioned this as an issue in their complaint.
New complaints about high debt and bill shock continued to rise. Complaints about disconnections and suspensions without notice increased by 11% to 5,834. Complaints about collection agents increased 2% to 5,430. Default listing complaints also increased, including complaints about the listing of disputed debts (up 27% to 3,688) and listing without notice (up 13% to 3,217).

Complaints regarding internet services (wired such as home ADSL or wireless internet such as dongles) were reported as declining by 1% to 37,092. The TIO suggests that the decline may be partly attributable to "more affordable internet plans with generous data allowances, either as part of bundled packages or standalone deals, now being offered by the industry".

New complaints about mobile premium services (MPS) were down 45.6% to 2,174, reflecting stronger regulation and self-regulation of these services.

TIO investigated 20,635 cases, a decrease of 14.8%, which it claims highlights the effectiveness of the TIO’s referral and conciliation processes. "The level of overall satisfaction with our complaint handling was 93 per cent among consumers we surveyed in February 2011."