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Telecommunications in regional and remote Australia

29 February 2012

Distance, a lack of awareness of rights and limited information on new technologies are among the challenges that regional and remote residents face as telecommunications consumers, TIO research shows.

Some of these issues were highlighted in the TIO’s December 2011 submission to the Regional Telecommunications Review. This review is being conducted by the 2011-12 Regional Telecommunications Review Committee commissioned by the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Ombudsman Simon Cohen met with the committee in December 2011.

New complaints from regional and remote Australia make up 24.6 per cent of total new complaints received by the TIO in 2010-11. These complaints demonstrate that rural residents were not as affected by mobile network and Smartphone issues as their metropolitan counterparts in 2010-11.  However, changing usage patterns – increasingly foregoing landlines for mobiles – is having an impact.

Customer service, complaint handling and billing and payment issues have been the most common type of complaint in inner and outer* regional areas during the past few years. In 2010-11, (consistent with national trends) issues about mobile phone faults significantly increased, along with issues about credit management and contracts for mobile services.

Complaints about landline faults, while falling nationally, have increased in inner regional (11 per cent), remote (28 per cent) and very remote (50 per cent) areas.  In our experience, the level of detriment experienced by consumers when these types of complaints occur is substantial.

For consumers with little or poor mobile coverage, a working and reliable landline voice service is critical to their ability to run businesses, have access to essential and emergency services or to keep in touch with family and friends.

The suitability of options available to the consumer, such as mobile phones, while repairs or infrastructure works are undertaken, is more limited than for metropolitan consumers.

Our complaint investigations evidence some of the obstacles in place for providers to expeditiously assist consumers who experience ongoing or intermittent faults and difficulties, such as distance, environmental and geographical barriers, liaising with land owners and occupiers and the costs involved as a result.  In this respect, we have emphasised the importance for regional and rural consumers of the performance standards in the Customer Service Guarantee (CSG) Standard for timely connections and repairs, and the need to closely monitor service provider performance against the Standard.

Our submission also canvassed the issues confronting Indigenous consumers in rural and regional areas.  The TIO’s Indigenous Liaison Team (ILT) was established to provide a dedicated and expert contact point within the TIO for Indigenous consumers or their advocates.  The ILT has directly handled 114 complaints from Indigenous consumers or their advocates in the past 18 months. These complaints are usually promptly resolved by the service providers when the TIO gets involved. They  usually relate to multiple issues about billing, financial over-commitment, debt collection and credit management.

From our analysis of these complaints, we have noted several issues of concern:

  • Some Indigenous consumers who go into a telecommunications store to purchase a pre-paid mobile service or who may be telemarketed by a provider, could be persuaded to sign up for a more expensive post paid mobile plan that they may not be able to afford.
  • Some Indigenous consumers are given inadequate information about the nature of the products and services on offer. They may not be informed when charges can continue to accumulate after the included value (or “cap”) of the plan has been used, and how they can manage or control their expenditure.
  • Indigenous consumers may also not be advised or not understand how to minimise their continuing exposure to debt.  
  • Unusually high debt, being pursued by debt collectors or having a default listed on their credit files is common among the complaints we received from Indigenous consumers.

We have suggested better staff training and improved community consultation as some of the steps that may improve outcomes for Indigenous consumers.

More generally, our research indicates that consumers in regional and remote areas may have limited knowledge of their rights, responsibilities and options as telecommunications users.  Our outreach activities also indicate that greater use of telecommunications services among young people in regional and remote communities warrants an increase in the availability of information about these services.

We have pointed to the recommendations of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), following the Reconnecting the Customer enquiry, about improved advertising practices, enhanced spend management tools and better complaints handling as providing redress for some of these issues, especially if incorporated into the new Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code.

*The TIO captures consumers’ postcode details each time we record a new complaint. We are able to identify the location of complaints based on this postcode information. We use the Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) Remoteness Structure to categorise locations into five region types. They are: major cities, inner regional Australia, outer regional Australia, remote Australia and very remote Australia.

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