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Catching up: convergence and consumer law

10 July 2013

Convergence is blurring the boundaries between traditional and new services telcos provide. Devices and platforms that once had distinct functions now support different services and applications.

What is convergence?

The most well-known example of convergence is media and communications. Information services such as television and newspapers are now delivered via a range of platforms and devices. Some other converged telco services we see at the TIO are:

  • pay TV delivered over the internet or bundled with other telco services
  • telco and energy bundles
  • telco and banking products that allow consumers to buy goods using their mobile phone, and
  • making complaints via social media.

For its many benefits, convergence is challenging the regulations in place to protect consumers. This includes external dispute resolution services such as Ombudsman. 

Convergence and Ombudsman services

We operate in an environment where an Ombudsman’s jurisdiction is based on a contract between a provider and the Ombudsman. But if there is no such contract, and the service provider may not even be based in Australia, consumers may have few options.

For example, the TIO may not be able to deal with pay TV fault disputes, even if the service is bundled with the consumer’s home phone. We turn away hundreds of consumers each year for this reason, but it makes little sense to consumers, who receive one bill for both services.

Complaints made via social media

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has pointed out that complaints made via social media are not covered by regulations that prescribe complaint handling procedures. This presents new questions for Ombudsman services, such as:

  • Should a complaint posted on a provider’s facebook page be accepted by an Ombudsman if the provider does not respond?
  • Should Ombudsman accept complaints made using social media?
  • Is social media undermining the need for Ombudsman? 

A way forward

Our response is evolving as we develop and improve our knowledge about converged services. We are also building relationships with industry and regulators to come up with a best practice approach.

External dispute resolution continues to be a key consumer safeguard. Different public inquiries are looking into how the law can catch up to these new technologies. Meanwhile, more than a quarter of a million Australians use one of the many Ombudsman offices available to them.

This blog post is an extract of a speech given by Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Simon Cohen at the International Association of Consumer Law conference 2013.

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