Consumers with disabilities and the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman
All Australians are guaranteed access to a basic fixed line telephone service– the standard telephone service. The guarantee is known as the Universal Service Obligation and is delivered by the Universal Service Provider, Telstra.Under the Universal Service Obligation, Telstra must:
- ensure that consumers with disabilities have reasonable access to voicetelephony, or an equivalent form of communication if voice telephony is notpracticable.
- ensure that consumers with disabilities are supplied with, on request,appropriate equipment with which to connect to the standard telephone service.This means that Telstra must give its customers the option of leasing equipmentappropriate to their needs.
In general, anti-discrimination law requires that equipment suitable forconsumers with a disability must be made available on the same terms andconditions (including price) as standard customer equipment.
Under the Universal Service Obligation, only Telstra is required to offer thefull range of disability equipment. However, Optus has a Disability EquipmentProgram that provides standard equipment and disability equipment, includingteletypewriters.
The regulations and standards that specify the equipment that must beavailable to consumers with disabilities are detailed in the AustralianCommunications and Media Authority's fact sheet Telecommunications equipment forpeople with a disability.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudman's role
We can investigate complaints about the supply of disability equipment,particularly where Telstra is not complying with its obligations as theUniversal Service Provider; that is, if it is not providing the consumer withreasonable access to a standard telephone service, including a rentalhandset.
If a consumer's rental handset appears to be faulty, we will investigate. Inaddition, we will also consider complaints where the equipment provided may notsuit the consumer's disability, or where additional equipment is required to usea service but has not been supplied.
While providers other than Telstra are not bound to supply disabilityequipment under the Universal Service Obligation, we expect that all serviceproviders that bill a customer for local access should ensure that theircustomer's disability requirements are met – within reason – in relation to theprovision of telecommunications services.
In the case of internet and mobile services falling outside the UniversalService Obligation, we may investigate complaints where a provider is alleged tohave failed to provide equipment which is reasonably necessary for the consumerto access the service. In these cases, we would consider the advice provided tothe consumer at the point of sale or in other conversations with theprovider.
The following case studies illustrate how we handle complaints aboutdisability related matters.
Case study #1
The consumer, who had trouble gripping a handset for long periods, signed upfor a landline service that offered a disability handset with SMS function. Shediscovered that she could not send text messages as she had a silent phonenumber. Although the provider said it had told the consumer when the phone wasinstalled that SMS was not available from silent phone numbers due to technicaland privacy reasons, the consumer denied being informed.
The consumer said she would need the SMS function and a silent line as shehad an abusive ex-husband who had made threatening calls.
We raised thiscomplaint with the provider. It said that SMS messages could not be sent fromsilent lines as the receiving phone service needed a number in order to respond.The provider said that even if it were possible to develop telephone networksthat allowed SMS services with silent lines, it was under no obligation toprovide a customer with one.
As a gesture of goodwill, the provider offered a credit of $250 towards apre-paid mobile that could be used to send text messages.
Case study #2
The consumer, who is vision impaired, sought a mobile handset on a post-paidplan which would best suit his needs. The consumer was offered one mobilehandset that the provider advised was suitable for visually impaired users.However this mobile handset had silver lettering on a white keypad and did notgive sufficient contrast and was not appropriate for his use. The consumer wasaware of another mobile handset which better suited his needs but the providerrequired him to purchase this handset outright (not on a post-paid plan), whichhe could not afford to do.
The consumer advised us that he had to borrow money from a friend to purchasethe more appropriate mobile handset. The consumer wanted the provider toreimburse him this amount.
We raised this complaint with the provider. After consideration of theconsumer's concerns, the provider offered the consumer a $150 credit to coverthe cost of the more appropriate mobile handset that the consumer hadpurchased.
Case study #3
The consumer asked the provider to supply her with a teletypewriter. Theprovider sent the consumer a phone with amplified sound for the hearing impairedinstead of a teletypewriter. The consumer attempted to have this error remediedon several occasions and the provider promised to send out the teletypewriterbut did not do so. The consumer also experienced considerable frustration as shehad difficulty in getting through to the provider's customer service. Theconsumer, who had a severe and deteriorating medical condition, did not have anyaccess to a landline service in case of an emergency.
The provider then advised the consumer that it could not provide ateletypewriter and instead referred the consumer to Telstra, the UniversalService Provider.
We raised this complaint with the provider as a priorityassistance1 complaint. The provider advised that itcould not provide the teletypewriter and asked the consumer to transfer herlandline service to Telstra and to sign an application form for theteletypewriter. This posed an added delay to the resolution of the complaint. Wepressed the provider for an early resolution of the complaint and for a goodwillgesture to the consumer for the considerable delay and frustrationexperienced.
The provider registered the consumer's account as medical priorityassistance, provided her with a teletypewriter and offered her a credit of $180(which covered the access fees for the landline service for the period of thedelay).
1Under the Universal Service Obligation Telstra is obliged toassign priority status to individuals in certain circumstances, including wherethe individual's life, health, safety or shelter would otherwise be at riskwithout a fully operational telecommunications service. Other service providersvoluntarily offer priority assistance services in line with the requirements ofthe Communications Alliance Ltd industry code Priority Assistance for LifeThreatening Medical Conditions.