Thursday, 18 December 2014 01:27

TIO: telco complaints lower than ever but NBN (dis)connection issues a worry Featured

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Telco complaints down 9.1% from Q2 2014, down 14.6% from Q3 2013, yet 30,359 complaints during Q3 2014 and NBN connection issues remain: Comms Alliance and AMTA respond.

Either people are happier with their telcos and phones, or don’t want to go through the pain of complaining, but whatever the true reason, telco complaints have fallen to the lowest level in 7 years, according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO)

7 years ago the original iPhone had launched mid-year, 7 years ago Nokia was still king of the hill, 7 years ago Telstra was a lot more annoying and had dramatically worse customer service than it does today and 7 years ago the FTTP NBN was still but a twinkle in Kevin Rudd’s bespectacled eyes.

But 7 years on we have TIO Ombudsman Simon Cohen proclaiming: “I welcome this continuing drop in complaints. It is encouraging to see that one of the biggest issues for the last financial year, excess data charges, is also trending down."

While complaints over slow speeds, coverage issues and mobile broadband excess charges are down, as well look at in a moment, a worrying trend with copper lines being disconnected before a new NBN connection is installed is emerging as a big worry for those affected.

Telcos say they are working hard to get in contact with those who might be affected, but the fact some people have been left with no fixed line connection at all shows the telcos need to work a lot harder.

This is despite the TIO reporting that complaints have decreased in relation to the NBN, although with so few Australians connected to the NBN this may not be too surprising. Even so, the TIO said it had ‘received 1,229 NBN-related new complaints in July-September 2014, with complaints decreasing each month over the quarter.’

But the TIO’s report states that ‘connection issues continued to be the most common problem raised by consumers making a complaint about an NBN service. These included complaints about delays in connecting new landline and internet services and premature disconnection of copper service while a consumer waited for a connection’.

Thankfully, these issues decreased each month in the quarter, but it shouldn’t frankly happen at all - or at least, in my estimation.

The issue of ‘copper services’ being ‘disconnected before the NBN service is connected’ is being dubbed a ‘Continuity problem’ by the TIO. There’s also the startlingly bad issue of copper services being ‘disconnected incorrectly in areas classed as where new copper services are no longer offered (“cease sale” areas), as well as ‘residents of new developments where copper cannot be connected experiencing delays and are not offered alternative services.’

While the TIO says that ‘significantly, these issues have reduced by 50 per cent in July-September 2014 compared to the previous three months,’ you would never want to be in a similar position yourself - which sadly plenty of people have over the years when disconnecting from one ADSL provider to another.

Let’s hope the telcos can rapidly work this one out so complaints to the TIO drop to an absolute minimum, so that MTM stands for ‘multi-technology mix’ rather than ‘multi-technology mess’.

In other NBN stats, the TIO says that ‘consumers raised an issue about a connection delay in 285 new internet complaints and 282 new landline complaints’, which ‘often involved concerns from consumers about repeated rescheduling of connection dates, sometimes without explanation from their service provider. In other cases, consumers complained about not being offered an alternative service by their provider while they waited for their NBN service connection.’

While ‘NBN-related complaints about missed appointments also decreased each month in the quarter’, the TIO nevertheless received ’58 complaints about missed appointments for internet services and 77 complaints about missed appointments for landlines.’

Then let’s get onto other areas the TIO has reported on, as well as the level of complaints for the major carriers - with an infographic from part of the TIO's report at the end of this article.

When it comes to Telstra, it had 13,263 complaints in Q3 2014, a drop of 6.9% compared to Q2 and 0.2% higher than Q3 in 2013.

Vodafone had 6,267 complaints in Q3 2013, a drop of 14.6% from Q2 and down a whopping 29.8% compared to Q3 2013.

Optus clocked in at 3,157 complaints in Q3 2014, a drop of 9.1% over Q2 2014 and down 17% compared to Q3 2013.

Finally, TPG had 1,057 complaints in Q3 2014, a drop of 9.3% over Q2 2014 and 23.8% lower than in Q3 2014. 

Now that we have those figures out of the way, it's back to complaint specifics.

Complaints about excess data charges have fallen by 13.1% compared to the previous quarter, going from 2886 complaints to 2508 - but it’s still ‘the top issue brought to the TIO by mobile users’, with the TIO reporting that ‘the median dispute over excess data charges was $373.’

The TIO says that ‘excess data charges became the top issue that mobile users brought to the TIO in 2013-14, overtaking mobile coverage complaints.’

Unsurprisingly, we are told that ‘the increase in excess data charge complaints came at a time of increased use of data on mobile devices’, and that ‘improvements to handsets and mobile networks, including the rollout of 4G technology, have allowed consumers to download more data, more quickly.’

Here, the Ombudsman ‘supported calls from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) for parents to watch their children’s mobile and internet use to avoid high excess data charges,’ which is decidedly good advice.

Cohen stated: “Keep an eye on your children’s internet use these holidays, and look out for any usage alerts from your provider. If you do go over you allowance, get in touch with your provider to find out what options are available to you, such as data packs.”

Again, it’s good advice, but if you’re at home, your children’s devices should be connected to your home Wi-Fi anyway. See if there is free Wi-Fi at any holiday destinations you will travel to and remember that if you travel to cities that have free Wi-Fi in CBD areas (or even in shopping centres, cafes or other locations), that any automatic app updates might chew through the often meagre free Wi-Fi data allocations very quickly.

It won’t cost you any money, but if your child’s device is trying to update a lot of apps, or especially a lot of apps with very large updates, that you could find yourself locked out of any free Wi-Fi in CBD areas until a new session is established or until the next day, which may cause your child to turn Wi-Fi off and use the phone or tablet’s SIM-delivered data allocation.

But that’s my advice to you, dear reader, which simply expands upon that from the TIO.

The TIO has also issued its latest issue of TIO Talks, which can be downloaded from the TIO's Publications page (look for TIO Talks Dec 2014 down the page) or directly here as a PDF file

It has much more information on the drop in telco complains, as well as information on a review of the TIO’s fee structure and action by ACMA against two telcos - Planet ISP which had to refund more than $5000 to a consumer whose phone was stolen overseas, and Sure Telecom which had breached the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code.

So, what does the Communications Alliance have to say about the TIO’s latest report?

It notes that ‘complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman have fallen by 48% in the past 4 years – hitting a new seven-year-low figure in the three months to 30 September this year.’

Communications Alliance CEO, John Stanton said this was “further evidence that customer service and complaint-handling excellence had become the new competitive battleground in Australian telecommunications” and added that “Australia’s telecommunications service providers have innovated in many ways, including re-writing their product plans to help customers maximise the value of services, manage their monthly spend and avoid excess-usage charges.

“Customer service has gone through a revolution in pursuit of better customer experience and easier, more satisfying ways to interact with service providers.

“No-one would argue ‘mission-accomplished’ – there is great scope to drive complaint volumes far lower, and industry is on track to do exactly that.

“Measures such as the improved Communications Alliance Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code have helped the trend, but the driver is coming from a genuine top-down commitment among service providers to excel at customer service. It is particularly pleasing to note the 13% drop in complaints related to mobile excess data charges –further evidence of industry’s ability to address ‘of the moment’ issues without compromising focus on the more traditional drivers of complaints.”

Meanwhile, AMTA, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association also heralded the drop in complaints, with its CEO, Chris Althaus noting that “This is a big drop, however, when put in the context of a 97% increase in the volume of data downloaded via mobile handsets in the past year, it is a very good performance on any measure.

“Consumers are becoming more aware and informed about their use of data on mobiles. Their awareness of usage patterns assists them to choose a plan that suits their needs.

“Also, our industry has co-operated in efforts to make consumers more aware of their data usage via alerts, which are issued to customers when they reach 50 per cent, 85 per cent and 100 per cent of their data usage limit to keep them informed so they avoid bill shock.”

On that 97% increase figure, AMTA quotes ACMA figures showing ‘that the volume of data downloaded on mobile handsets had increased from 19,636 TB to 38,734 TB or a 97 per cent increase in the quarter ended June 2014 compared to the same period in 2013.’


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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.

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