New telco industry data highlights urgent need for effective regulation and enforcement powers to protect Australians

New complaints data released by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) emphasises the clear need for regulation and strengthened regulator enforcement powers to protect Australians from poor behaviour by telcos, says Consumer Action Law Centre (Consumer Action).

The Telecommunications Ombudsman released a report today that showed unresolved complaints are taking longer to close than in previous years, with less than half of escalated complaints closing within 60 days.

The report also showed that while complaints about telcos have gone down by 21.1% over the past financial year, the TIO identified 53 possible systemic issues with 18 referred to regulators during 2018/19.

“Industry self-regulation is failing to protect Australians,” says Consumer Action CEO, Gerard Brody.

“Our Centre regularly assists people who had been unable to seek a fair outcome to debt issues with their mobile phone providers – from being sold expensive mobile plans and add-on devices without proper affordability checks, to being unable to receive a fair outcome to a request for a payment plan or hardship assistance.

“It is clear that the current telecommunications regulatory framework is not effectively addressing some of the more detrimental issues faced by consumers.”

Between the industry-written Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code and weak enforcement powers, the regulator’s ability to address the issues faced by customers remain limited.

While the new Complaints Handling Standard has been in force since July 2018, Brody says the TIO’s statistics show that telco providers are still delaying or just not responding to consumer complaints or, even worse, not sticking with agreed resolutions.

“A key problem is the telco regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, doesn’t have the same powers as other regulators when it comes to consumer protection.  In the first instance, it can only direct a provider to comply – it can’t seek penalties that deter bad conduct.”

The Department of Communications and the Arts commenced a three-part Consumer Safeguards Review of the telecommunications industry mid-2018. The final part of the Review – which is set to examine customers’ ability to exercise informed choice in selecting phone services and fair treatment with respect to phone sales, customer service, contracts, billing and credit and debt management – has yet to be announced.

Brody urges the Australian Government to prioritise completing this review and carefully consider the cost of the weakly regulated telco sector on consumers.

“It is time for the telecommunications industry to be brought into line with other essential services.”

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