Telco consumer advocacy group The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) has slammed the telco industry for not doing enough to assist customers in hardship.
The criticism comes after Australian telcos and the Federal Government have agreed to extend the customer hardship policies related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Telco industry group Communications Alliance said the hardship principles forged in April 2020 will remain until 30 September 2021 where it will be up for another review.
ACCAN called the extension a “symbolic effort” that will not sufficiently protect telco consumers.
“While we’ve welcomed the telco industry’s vocal support for Australians experiencing hardship during the COVID crisis, the fact of the matter is that these principles don’t actually offer any additional support for consumers in need,” ACCAN chief executive Teresa Corbin said.
“They are simply re-emphasising their existing obligations under the TCP Code and Complaints Handling Standard.”
The principles (pdf) directed telcos to provide payment plans or hardship agreements with both consumers and small businesses affected by the pandemic, including waiving disconnection,
reconnection or contract break fees and hibernation options.
Corbin added that now is the time for additional measures to safeguard consumers as the impact of rolling lockdowns has been taking a serious toll on small businesses and consumers.
ACCAN cited a report from Financial Counselling Australia in April this year that found financial counsellors had clients who struggled to pay telco bills, with a quarter of those surveyed saying more than half of their clients were struggling to pay.
The report also found telco hardship practices have been poor overall, and that mis-selling had been rampant across the industry resulting in hardships. It also found that affordability checks had been inadequate, with many placed in financial stress.
“We know that vulnerable people in hardship are not getting the support they need from their telco provider. This puts them at risk of losing their connection which is vital for work, education and health,” Corbin said.
“There needs to be a quick and easy process to get hardship arrangements in place for telco customers in need. Telecommunications are an essential service, and it is time for them to be treated as such.”
ACCAN is also calling on the telco industry to automatically extend the expiry of prepaid mobile phone credit and relax the data restrictions for mobile plans to keep customers connected during the pandemic. It added that small businesses should also be allowed to hibernate services during lockdowns.
“There are thousands of small businesses across the country who have had to either close their businesses or move their staff to a working from home arrangement because of the various lockdowns currently in place in response to the current COVID-19 outbreaks,” Corbin added.
“Small businesses should be able to pause their phone and internet connections while they are not in use so that they are faced with one less financial stress during this period.”
The Communications Alliance declined to comment on ACCAN's response.