A new report by Australia’s telecommunications ombudsman has revealed the extent of coronavirus’ impact on households and how complaints were handled during that period.
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), Australia’s telco watchdog, has released a new report detailing the impact 2020’s global pandemic had on local phone and internet usage.
The report revealed complaints spiked during the lockdown months between March and June but many went unanswered for longer than usual due to ripple effects caused by the virus.
“From mid-March 2020, we saw a significant rise in complaints and enquiries from consumers saying they could not contact their provider. At their peak in early April, the average daily number of complaints and enquiries was significantly higher than in early March,” the report read.
“Consumers told us because they could not contact their provider, they were unable to get issues addressed. Providers acknowledged the lockdowns affecting offshore operations meant consumers were likely to experience delays in contacting their provider.”
It said while complaints had since dropped since these peaks, they remained at levels higher than pre-COVID times.
The report also highlighted two other key areas the pandemic had been impacted — a rise in complaints over internet disruptions but fewer complaints about bill disputes.
The TIO received an average of 350 escalated complaints at the peak of lockdowns
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) said the report highlighted the failure of telcos to keep their customers connected with alternative methods while issues were being sorted.
“It’s quite startling to see that an average of 350 people had to escalate complaints about faults and connections to the TIO in the span of one week in early April,” ACCAN’s CEO, Teresa Corbin, said.
“While it appears that the telcos have tried to address issues with missed appointments, providers failed to offer consumers an interim service to keep them connected. At a time where people have never been more reliant on connectivity this is simply unacceptable.
“The TIO’s report shows the serious negative impacts that consumers can face when telco services fail and providers are slow to respond. Our phone and internet connections are essential services in these times and we need to ensure that providers treat them as such.”
Despite the rise in complaints, ombudsman Judi Jones said the industry had performed reasonably well given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic. It’s suspected some of the relief measures — the NBN Co’s removal of CVC and the pausing of copper migration — played a part in lessening the overall impact.
“The pandemic has stress-tested the industry and government relief measures and stretched the capacity of telco providers. It is encouraging to see the industry’s extension of the telecommunications hardship principles until the end of September and the steps providers have taken so far to respond to the financial impact on consumers,” Jones said in a media release.
“This systemic investigation reveals where more can be done by all parties in the supply chain to protect consumers, particularly those who are vulnerable. In some cases, where telcos had stopped taking complaints about billing issues, consumers said they were not able to report an incorrect charge on their bill resulting in overdrawn bank accounts and the inability to afford food, medicine or pay rent.
“My office will continue to monitor what consumers are telling us and work with providers to improve the customer experience.”