Everyone now hates their telco

James Riley
Editorial Director

Complaints about internet services skyrocketed in the past year, with anger at the National Broadband Network climbing by more than 150 per cent, a Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman report has found.

The TIO’s 2016-17 Annual Report, released on Wednesday morning, showed that complaints about landline phones, mobile phones and internet services increased for the first time in five years.

The Ombudsman received more than 150,000 complaints in total, an increase of 41.1 per cent year-on-year.

Judi Jones: Expects complaints to continue to rise as the industry undergoes structural change

And for the first time ever, internet services topped the complaints list, with more than 63,000 lodged, an increase of nearly 65 per cent from last year.

“The telecommunications industry in Australia is undergoing unprecedented change. Given this environment, it is not surprising complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman have increased 41 per cent to 158,016,” Ombudsman Judi Jones said.

“The picture the complaints show is we are frustrated when we cannot rely on technology to stay connected, to be informed, and to do business. Sharing high quality videos immediately, holding an online meeting or watching Netflix on the way home is now the norm and part of our daily routine.”

The Ombudsman received more than 27,000 complaints related to the NBN, a jump of 159.3 per cent from last year. While Ms Jones noted that this is in part due to the rapid rollout of the network, it is still a concerningly high number.

“Complaints about services delivered over the national broadband network more than doubled, and while this is somewhat to be expected given the accelerating rollout, the increase is a cause for concern,” she said.

Of the NBN complaints, more than half centred on faults in services delivered by the NBN, equated to 6.7 fault complaints per 1,000 premises activated. More than 11,000 complaints were made about connection delays to the NBN, making 8.3 connection delay complaints per 1,000 premises.

“The national broadband network project is complex, and complaints about services delivered over the NBN can be multifaceted. Problems can arise with retailers, with other intermediaries, and sometimes the problem can be with the residential consumer’s or small businesses’ equipment. It is important all parties involved work together to ensure a great consumer experience,” Ms Jones said.

The Ombudsman has the authority to issue binding determinations in disputes, and can make legally binding damages orders of up to $50,000.

But a recent Labor-dominated Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee report said there was a lack of awareness among consumers of the Ombudsman’s powers in dispute resolution.

In its submission to the inquiry, the Ombudsman said that “having the authority to require all the relevant parties in the supply chain to cooperate with the TIO and to provide information to the TIO would assist the resolution of complaints”.

The Parliamentary Committee recommended that customers making a complaint be made specifically aware of the external dispute resolution options, including through the Ombudsman, and that it should be given the power to require all relevant parties to cooperate.

The rollout of the NBN is still extremely controversial, with the Committee recently recommending that the remaining network should be completed using fibre-to-the-curb “at a minimum”.

The report said that the transition to the NBN from previous networks had been “extremely poor” for some people.

“Many problems have been experienced at every stage of the migration process, from installation issues through to speed and performance faults once services are established,” the report said.

In terms of other complaints in the Ombudsman’s report, customer service, billing and payments, faults and complaint handling were the most common sources of angst, while the large majority were made by residential consumers.

South Australia saw the highest growth in complaints with a jump of more than 50 per cent, closely followed by Western Australia. Victoria saw more than 43,000 complaints, while New South Wales topped the list with about 50,500.

In terms of service providers, Telstra unsurprisingly as market leader received the most with over 76,000 complaints, followed Optus, Vodafone and iiNet.

Only complaints about the NBN’s entry onto land to install equipment and regarding property damage can be made directly against the NBN, with all others listed against the retail service provider.

The Parliamentary Committee ruled that the NBN should be subject to the Ombudsman’s scheme when it “can be clearly identified as the party at fault” for a complaint.

“While in many cases it is not possible to attribute fault in this way, in the minority of cases where this attribution is more straightforward, the TIO should have the ability to register complaints directly against NBN, with NBN then responsible for paying the fees associated with that complaint,” the report said.

Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman chair Patricia Faulkner said the organisation had to be restructured to cope with the increase in complaints.

“The past year has seen a significant increase in the number of complaints, after five years of decline. The Ombudsman has responded to this with an increase in staff numbers and changes to the structure of the organisation,” Ms Faulkner said.

Of the complaints, more than 90 per cent were resolved by the consumer or business working directly with the provider, while the rest involved the Ombudsman’s dispute resolution officers working to find a “fair and reasonable solution”.

With rapid changes taking place in the telecommunications sector, its likely complaints will continue to increase in the coming year, Ms Jones said.

“It seems likely the ongoing changes in the telecommunications industry will continue to drive up complaints. It is important all members of the industry continue working to improve the customer experience so consumers have reliable services and complaints are resolved quickly when they arise,” she said.

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