The federal government has attacked its own telecommunications ombudsman after its latest report showed that NBN-related complaints had tripled in the last year.
Despite the attack on the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), federal communications minister Mitch Fifield has also announced a review into consumer safeguards in the industry, which has been in the works for years.
The TIO’s six-month update, released on Tuesday, revealed that complaints received had increased by 30.5 percent to nearly 85,000 in the last six months of 2017. Of most interest to the government and most consumers were complaints regarding services on the NBN had more than tripled year-on-year to nearly 23,000 in just six months.
In response, the federal government questioned the TIO’s methodology in reporting complaints, and said that its “presentation could give the impression that responsibility for this figure rests with NBN Co”.
“Advice to government from NBN Co is that of the 22,827 complaints about services delivered over the NBN, less than 5 percent were sent to NBN Co as complaints to resolve. This was over a period that saw a 39 percent increases in NBN premises activated,” Senator Fifield said.
“Without this context and information about which party is responsible for resolving customer complaints, organisations lack accountability, which, as today’s TIO complaint numbers show, leads to poor outcomes for consumers of telecommunications services.”
The government also questioned why TIO compared the last six months of 2017 with the corresponding months in 2016, rather than the first six months of last year.
“The TIO has calculated this against the July to December 2016 period, not the preceding six month period. When you compare against the preceding six month period, complaints actually decreased by 7.75 percent,” Senator Fifield said.
But Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones has said that there is usually seasonality associated with complaints, and the year-on-year comparison employed is more accurate.
“If you look at the data for the last five or six years, there are increases in the first part of the year and declines in the second part,” Ms Jones told InnovationAus.com.
The Opposition has used the latest TIO report as another chance to attack the government over its handling of the NBN rollout.
“This concerning increase in complaints is a damning indictment of a Turnbull government that has spent three years plodding around like a disinterested spectator. Labor hopes to see a significant reduction in complaints over the next reporting period. It’s clear that current trends are unsustainable, and consumers are fed up with the blame game,” shadow communications minister Michelle Rowland said.
The TIO is an independent dispute resolution service for small businesses and residential customers to report complaints with their telco providers. It was established in 1993 under government legislation and is independent of industry, government and consumer organisations.
Despite its strong rebuke of the TIO, the federal government also finally released the terms of reference for an official inquiry into telecommunications consumer safeguards in Australia.
“No matter who the responsible party is, the complaints figures are simply too high – the current model for protecting consumers needs reform. With that in mind, the Turnbull government has announced a review of the telecommunications consumer protections framework for a post-2020 environment,” Senator Fifield said.
The review will be split into three parts, with the first phase investigating what safeguards are necessary to “ensure that consumers have access to an effective complaints handling and redress scheme”. It will examine the existing model for handling consumer complaints, and identify potential improvements, with recommendations to be handed to government in the coming months.
The other two parts of the review will be looking to ensure consumers have reliable telco services and are able to make informed choices, with final recommendations to be handed down by the end of the year.
“The TIO’s six-monthly report released today shows that the existing model for complaints handling and redress is not working. Customers are continuing to experience poor service, and are unable to get their service provider to satisfactorily resolve issues,” Senator Fifield said.
“The fact that complaints to the TIO are still high across all types of fixed line and mobile services clearly shows that telcos need to lift their game.”
The review has been in the works for a while, with the government first announcing its intention to conduct such an investigation in February 2016.
“The government will examine the overall consumer safeguards framework to ensure that regulations are fit-for-purpose and take into account ongoing developments in communications technology,” the government said in response to a regional telecommunications review.
The Opposition has slammed the government for “scrambling” in the wake of the TIO’s report.
The consistent lack of action, and the announcement of a review first flagged two years ago, shows the Turnbull government only cares about one thing: the NBN spin cycle,” Ms Rowland said.
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