[box type=”note”]This CFA policy is currently under review[/box]
CFA has a five point plan for reform in the telecommunications sector. We want:
- a single consumer telecommunications code;
- a ‘one-stop’ shop for Alternative Dispute Resolution complaint handling;
- a more robust consumer protection regulator;
- vastly improved internal dispute resolution processes within telecommunications companies themselves; and,
- fair and clear contracts.
Each element is explored in more detail below.
1. Single Consumer Telecommunications Code
There are various “consumer” Codes (as compared to Codes focused on technical operational matters) promulgated by the industry body, the Australian Communications Industry Forum (“ACIF”).
The Codes are never used by consumers or consumer caseworkers, but are resources for industry and for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (“TIO”), which monitors compliance with the Codes and reports on non-compliance to the Australian Communications Authority (“ACA”). Some Codes can be registered with the ACA, others not. The consumer Code regime within the telecommunications industry is fractured and flawed.
A process which generates a single omnibus consumer telecommunications Code (such as the banking and insurance industries) will:
(a) result in a more consumer-focused Code;
(b) make the Code more accessible to consumers;
(c) rationalise elements of the separate consumer Codes; and
(d) provide a vehicle for placing consumer protection on the telecommunications regulatory agenda.
Though still developing, the telecommunications industry is now more mature than when the various consumer Codes were initially conceived. It is time for a single consumer Code.
The process for the creation of a single consumer Code must be a process which is demonstrably capable of delivering the Code in a fair and expeditious manner.
2. A ‘one-stop’ shop for Alternative Dispute Resolution complaint handling
A one-stop shop for consumers who wish to pursue complaints against a telco is an important and fundamental principle. A one-stop shop has benefits which include:
• clarity and certainty about jurisdiction for complaints;
• reduction of duplication
Currently the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is the principle Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) scheme for telecommunications disputes, though elements of disputes with 190 service providers are heard by the Telephone Information Services Standards Council (“TISSC”) and there is uncertainty about what ADR is available for other telco disputes (such as pay TV disputes).
Unless it is otherwise impossible, all consumer disputes within the telecommunications industry should be capable of resolution at the one ADR scheme. The TIO is best placed to be that scheme.
3. A more robust consumer protection regulator
Consumer protection regulation within the telecommunications industry has been inadequate. Reasons for this include:
• a division of consumer protection responsibilities between two regulators, the ACA and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (“ACCC”); and
• the ACA’s regulatory focus has been weighted towards technical and operational issues rather than consumer protection.
There needs to be a more robust consumer protection regulator with broader powers and lower hurdles for action.
The goal of a more robust regulator would be achieved by a regulatory restructure which sees a merged ACA/Australian Broadcasting Authority (“ABA”) responsible for technical regulation, and enhanced consumer protection responsibilities in the telecommunications industry lying with the ACCC .
4. Improved internal complaints handling processes within the telecommunications industry.
The industry must significantly improve Internal Dispute Resolution processes.
Consumer advocates’ casework experience reflects that complaints handling by companies within the telecommunications industry is significantly worse than in other industries, such as banking and insurance. The TIO reports breaches of the ACIF Complaints Handling Code as consistently one of the largest complaint areas.
Effective Internal Dispute Resolution (“IDR”) is critical to satisfactory complaints handling within the telecommunications industry. Consumers need more certainty as to the pathway through a telco’s complaints system from IDR to the TIO.
Improved IDR within telcos will be assisted by:
- individual telcos meeting the Aust Standard on Complaints Handling;
- individual telcos outlining their complaint process for customers
- stronger regulatory enforcement of breaches of complaint-handling standards.
5. Fair and clear contracts
Telecommunication contracts commonly include terms and conditions which are unfair or unclear, and result or risk resulting in significant consumer detriment.
Telecommunications contracts should reflect at a minimum, the six principles set out in the “Telecommunications Contracts Checklist” developed in August 2002 by the Australian Consumers Association, the Communications Law Centre, the Consumers Telecommunications Network and the Consumer Law Centre of Victoria.
Commonwealth trade practices legislation, and state fair trading legislation, should include provisions which provide consumers with satisfactory redress in the event that they have entered contracts with unfair terms.