Telco companies are failing people in financial hardship

A report released this week by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) shows that telco providers are not adequately identifying and supporting customers experiencing financial hardship.

The ACMA reports shows that just 0.07 percent of residential telco customers were in a financial hardship arrangement with their telco provider – compared to more than 1 percent for electricity customers. This means that 15 times more customers in financial difficulty are being helped by their electricity provider compared to their telco provider.

The report also shows that nearly a quarter of people who entered into a financial hardship arrangement had their mobile and telephone services disconnected. This suggests that the assistance telcos are offering is not helping a large proportion of their customers.

“We regularly hear from people whose telco provider has refused to help them when they’ve hit hard times. People have been denied or cut off from financial hardship arrangements, sometimes even when the telco provider never bothered to check they could afford the mobile phone plan in the first place,” says Brigette Rose, Senior Policy Officer with Consumer Action Law Centre.

“What this report shows is that despite people asking their telco provider for help in incredibly difficult circumstances, they can still be cut off. This is unacceptable for an essential service like telecommunications. For someone needing medical help, a mobile phone could literally be their lifeline.”

Consumer Action Law Centre says the COVID-19 crisis risks making these issues worse, if telco call centres become increasingly difficult to contact.

More than 65 community organisations are calling on telecommunications companies to publicly commit to the following relief measures as a matter of urgency:

  1. Keep people connected.  It is essential during this time of self-isolation that people have access to their phone services to keep in touch and check in on one another.
  2. Freeze debt collection for those in financial difficulty. An unprecedented health crisis is stressful enough, without being harassed by debt collectors.
  3. Waive penalty fees. The last thing people need is to be hit with additional late fees if they are already struggling to pay on time.

So far, three of the largest telco providers in Australia (Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone) have publicly committed to some of these measures, while others are yet to respond.

“It’s good that the big telcos are taking some action, but many low-income Australians have chosen smaller retail providers because they can be cheaper. It’s imperative that all telco providers take steps to help their customers – essential telecommunication services are more vital now than ever,” said Brigette Rose.

You can read the report by ACMA released on 2 April, 2020 here.

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Media contact: Alycia Gawthorne, Campaigns & Advocacy Adviser | 0413 299 567 | alycia@consumeraction.org.au

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