A decrease in complaints about phone and internet services is “only one part of the story” according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, with telco issues becoming more complex and harder to resolve.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) annual report details the number and type of complaints made to the watchdog around phone and internet services, along with how these are resolved.
In the 2018-19 financial year, the TIO received more than 130,000 complaints from residential consumers and small businesses, a 21.1 per cent decrease from the previous year.
But complaints where the consumer and provider couldn’t reach a resolution increased, and took longer to close. In the last year, less than half of these escalated complaints were closed within 60 days, compared to 77 per cent in 2017-18.
“Complaints about phone and internet services in Australia have continued their downward trend, and this is good news for consumers and the telecommunications industry, but this is only one part of the story,” Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Judi Jones said.
“The volume of complaints coming back to us unresolved shows an emerging picture of complexity in technical and small business issues.”
To address the growth in these complex issues, the TIO has taken a number of steps to improve its processes, Ms Jones said.
It has worked with telcos to introduce a fast-tracked process for simple complaints to free up time for the more difficult ones, and then group together similar complaints to refer them in bulk to the providers.
It has also formed specialist teams to handle escalated complaints dealing with technical and small business issues, often the most difficult to resolve.
The new Telecommunications Consumer Protections industry code, which came into effect at the start of August, will also help to improve how these complaints are managed, Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton said.
“There has been significant work over the past two years by industry to improve the customer experience, including – but certainly not limited to – NBN Co and RSPs achieving better communication and coordination for consumers and businesses as they migrate services to NBN-based networks,” Mr Stanton said.
“The TIO report highlights the growth of complex complaints, which leave some customers with issues unresolved for too long; pointing to the need for redoubled effort by service providers and the Ombudsman.”
The latest report comes amid large-scale change in the telecommunications industry, and for the TIO in general.
The ombudsman is continuing to “reflect deeply on its role and performance” based on the recommendations of a 2017 independent review of the scheme, along with the government’s consumer safeguards review last year.
It has implemented a new funding model at the start of this financial year, along with the change in approach to how it handles complaints.
The TIO may also be handed major new responsibilities, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Watchdog’s landmark digital platforms report flagging the potential for it to also handle complaints regarding the likes of Facebook and Google.
In its report, handed to government in late July, the ACCC said the TIO could be given new powers to investigate complaints by consumers and small businesses about digital platforms, and require them to take down certain content and order compensation if needed.
“The ACCC considers that the TIO may be an appropriate body to implement the scheme and the ACCC recommends that the ACMA and the TIO investigate the feasibility of the TIO taking on the role.
While the federal government said it would decide whether it would support this recommendation by the end of the year, it appears to have the backing of the TIO. The ombudsman’s independent chair Michael Lavarch said this recommendation would be “seriously explored with government, members and consumers”.
“This could be an important improvement in the architecture of Australia’s digital environment,” Mr Lavarch said.
Ms Jones also emphasised that the TIO remained committed to “delivering a best-practice complaint handling service for the telecommunications industry and consumers”.
For the first time ever, the annual report found there were more complaints in the year about internet services than mobile services, with the top complaint issues being service and equipment fees, and no action or delayed action by a provider.
In the last year there were more than 23,000 complaints about service quality on the National Broadband Network, an increase from 2.1 per 1000 premises on the network to 2.5.
There were more than 11,000 complaints made about changing providers or establishing a connection to the NBN, with this number jumping in the second half of the financial year.