The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has ordered Optus to pay a $6.4 million fine for misleading customers to believe their home broadband was about to be cut off.
The announcement came minutes after the telco announced a new initiative to donate data to young Australians living in poverty.
The decision comes off the back of Optus emailing 138,988 of its mobile customers back in 2018 to say their home broadband services were going to be "disconnected very soon". These services were being provided by Optus' competitors. The email encouraged customers to "make the switch" to an Optus NBN Broadband instead "before it's too late".
The Federal Court ruled that this statement was misleading because these customers weren't facing imminent disconnection from these rival broadband services.
Optus has followed in Telstra's footsteps by simplifying its mobile plan offerings and scrapping restrictive lock-in contracts. Part of the overhaul includes the introduction of Optus One, a top-tier plan that comes with a slew of perks including 'network priority' during congested periods. Unfortunately this goes against the concept of net neutrality.
It's worth noting that in general, you have roughly 18-months to swap to NBN once it becomes available in your area.
ACCC Chair Rod Sims stated that not only was this email misleading, but created a false sense of urgency that may have prevented some customers from researching properly for the best deal.
"As the NBN rollout nears completion, consumers around Australia are making decisions about whether and when to move onto the NBN, and what services are best for them," said Mr Sims.
"The industry should be helping consumers during this process, not providing them with misleading information. We are continuing to watch this area closely."
"We took this case against Optus because we were concerned its emails created a false sense of urgency for consumers and may have discouraged them from shopping around for the best deal available."
Optus has accepted this ruling and will be co-operating with the ACCC on this matter.
"We reaffirm our apology to customers who received the mistaken communication in 2018. We have already offered a costless exit for those customers who took up the offer," said an Optus spokesperson in an email to Gizmodo Australia.
"Optus is committed to improving customer experience and customer service across our business and we continue to devote energy and resources to deliver great service to all our customers."
This is the second time in two years the Optus has been fined for misleading customers in regards to switching to an NBN broadband service.
"We are concerned about Optus’ recent track record in misleading consumers about the NBN. We expect that this $6.4 million penalty will serve as a warning to Optus and other telcos that they must not mislead consumers about their choices when the NBN is being rolled out," said Mr Sims.
What is perhaps doubly disappointing about this conduct is that Optus sent out a press release regarding a new charity endeavour, Donate Your Data, mere minutes before the ACCC news went out earlier this morning.
The telco has partnered with The Smith Family and the KARI foundation to provide free SIM cards to young impoverished Australians. The SIMs will include unlimited national standard talk and text, as well as 10GB data which can also be topped up by leftover data from Optus customers each month.
While this is a wonderful cause, the timing is questionable thanks to the press release, which coincided with the one released by the ACCC. While the Donate Your Data website says it has been in effect since November, it was first publicly announced today.
While such a great initiative is probably about more than just a positive PR grab, the timing isn't doing it any favours.
Today Optus became the second telco is Australia to launch 5G. While Optus has been trialling 5G home broadband since earlier in the year and recently began stocking 5G-enabled phones, it's now official. But it still can't guarantee that 5G will work indoors.