A new report from the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) reveals more than 19,500 residential customers and 1,500 small business customers entered into a financial hardship arrangement with their telco in the 2019-20 financial year.
The report, which analyses telco data on customers in financial hardship arrangements, provides some indicator of the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on telco customers, particularly small business.
Data shows there was a significant increase in the number of small business customers accessing telco financial hardship programs in March-June 2020, with the total level of debt from small businesses in financial hardship three times higher in June than during the pre-COVID-19 period of the financial year.
An average of 28 per cent of small businesses on financial hardship arrangements were on a payment plan, with some paying large instalments. For customers of one telco, the median monthly instalment for their small business customers was as high as $737.
ACMA Chair Nerida O’Loughlin said it was vital for telcos to continue supporting Australian customers, including small businesses.
“Small businesses will play a critical role in our financial recovery following the worst effects of COVID-19,” Ms O’Loughlin said.
“Generally, telcos appear to be supporting small business customers by keeping them connected to vital telecommunications services and offering assistance in the form of changing plans, debt waivers and alternative repayment arrangements.”
Ms O’Loughlin said overall the report showed many positive outcomes for industry and consumers.
“We’ve seen improvements for many telcos in the proportion of customers successfully completing financial hardship arrangements during COVID-19,” she said.
“It’s important now that telcos maintain the improvements they have made and continue to focus on achieving a high level of successful completion of financial hardship arrangements by customers, especially small businesses, that are in particular need.”
The ACMA also collected the views of ten financial counsellors about their experiences of working with telcos on financial hardship matters. They indicated telcos could improve by making it easier for consumers to contact staff who can help, and by offering greater flexibility to accept more manageable repayment arrangements.
The ACMA is encouraging everyone who is in need and cannot keep up with payments for their phone or internet services, especially small businesses, to ask for help. You can do this by contacting your telco to access financial hardship arrangements, or through contacting a financial counsellor.
Protecting telco customers is an ACMA compliance priority and repeat non-compliance with the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code can lead to significant consequences for telcos breaking the rules. Telcos face penalties of up to $250,000 for failing to follow ACMA directions to comply with the TCP Code.
The Customer financial hardship in the telco industry—State of play report 2019–20 is available on the ACMA website.