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Saturday, 05 March 2011 11:49

Conroy launches review of Telecomms Ombudsman

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Communications minister Stephen Conroy has launched a surprise -and speedy - review of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Scheme, saying that the TIO latest statistics reveal complaints at an unacceptable level.

He has issued a discussion paper, saying: "Following consultation on the issues raised in the discussion paper I anticipate that options for reform will be put forward in the first half of 2011." Submissions are due by 31 March.

Conroy added: "The recently released TIO statistics show that complaints to the Ombudsman remain at very high levels and this is not acceptable'¦While I acknowledge the hard work the TIO does to deliver consumers with quick and effective solutions, I want to ensure it has the appropriate tools to deal with complaints."

The discussion paper seeks views on the effectiveness of the TIO dispute resolution mechanism in the areas of: speed, fairness and efficiency; consistency with current alternative dispute resolution best practice; its ability to promote and encourage industry efforts to deliver quality complaint resolution prior to outside intervention.

The review is the third initiative underway that seeks to examine and address issues around customer service in the telecommunications industry. The ACMA launched its 'Reconnecting the Customer' enquiry in July 2010 and Communications Alliance initiated a review of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code a month earlier.

This is the second review in the TIO's history. The Allen Consulting Group was commissioned to conduct a review in 2006. It was released in January 2007. Its overall conclusions were favourable. The discussion paper, however, flags as a key issue the TIO's failure to respond to recommendations made in the Allen Review.

It notes that there is no statutory requirement for a review of the TIO scheme. "'¦the TIO board controls the timing and scope of reviews of the TIO scheme'¦[and] the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of any TIO-commissioned review has caused some concern."

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According to the discussion paper "The 2006 review made 20 recommendations that covered many facets of the scheme. In response, the TIO did not directly respond to each individual recommendation but released a report setting out the TIO's approach to the recommendations with a view to incorporating any recommendations 'where appropriate into the TIO's existing activities'."

The Allen review also identified dissatisfaction with the time taken to resolve some complaints and suggested that additional funding be considered. The discussion paper canvasses the possibility of shorter, and binding, timeframes for complaint handling, and asks whether the TIO should be required report publicly on performance against its internal benchmarks for complaint resolution.

Also, the 2008 Review of Australia's Consumer Policy Framework conducted by the Productivity Commission suggested extending the remit of the TIO to include pay TV services and this possibility is also canvassed in the discussion paper.

The TIO was established in 1993 to provide a free and independent alternative dispute resolution scheme for small business and residential consumers who have complaints about their telephone or internet services. Participation is mandatory for telcos and ISPs. The TIO is able to investigate complaints and, where appropriate, make determinations on the matters raised and/or give directions to the telco or ISP involved. The incumbent, Simon Cohen - the former Victorian Public Transport Ombudsman - was appointed in April 2010.

He is due to speak at a Networking Forum in Sydney on 17 March organised by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Industry Association (AMTA).

According to AMTA he has "nominated key consumer issues, which will interest AMTA members: what's driving the recent increase in complaints to the TIO, with particular focus on customer service and complaint handling; bill shock from new devices, such as the iPad; the ACMA's Reconnecting the Customer Inquiry, which he says provides the TIO with an opportunity to build on its connect.resolve project; the review of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code." Enquiries to ann.wellsmore@amta.org.au

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