Good morning. Thank you to Teresa and the ACCAN Board for the kind invitation to address your members this morning. And thank you for the ongoing and effective advocacy that you do for one of the ACMA’s most valued stakeholders—telco consumers.
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet today. I pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.
I also want to acknowledge the presence here today of Fiona Cameron, a new Authority Member whose vast experience in the media, arts and communication sector, makes her a valuable addition to our team. I will be speaking more about Fiona’s role at the ACMA a little later in my address.
This is my first time addressing the ACCAN conference since my appointment to the role of ACMA Chair in October 2017. I am honoured to be leading the ACMA, working with my fellow Authority members and our staff at a time of such amazing innovation and development in this sector.
I think we can all agree that perhaps the most profound change in the Australian communications sector recently, has been the roll-out of the Australian Government’s National Broadband Network.
Fundamentally, the NBN presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve broadband services for all Australians. It has the potential to deliver great benefits for the Australian community including creating new businesses and supporting much needed flexibility for workers. By 2021, it is estimated, there could be between 30,000 and 80,000 additional new businesses created as a result of the NBN access network, and up to 47,300 additional people using the network to work from home.
But there are challenges, and they have become increasingly obvious during the roll-out.
Today I would like to:
- give you some context about the ACMA’s many and varied consumer protection roles
- provide an update on our recent work to improve consumers’ experience in moving to services delivered over the NBN
- announce some future actions.
In our recently published corporate plan, we set out the ACMA’s key priorities over the next four years. The first priority being to ensure public confidence in the media and communications sectors.
This is essential to the ACMA’s role in ensuring the economic and social benefits of services developed by these ever-evolving sectors are maximised for all Australians.
The ACMA already takes a very pro-active role in safeguarding consumer protection across a range of sectors from investigating breaches of the broadcasting codes through to enforcing compliance of the online gambling laws, to managing the Do Not Call Register to stop unwanted telemarketing calls and reducing spam.
In the last reported year, the ACMA conducted over 200 assessments of telecommunications provider compliance with the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code and concluded 31 investigations. Our main areas of focus were complaints-handling practices, a sweep of critical information summaries for services delivered over the NBN, and unauthorised customer transfers.
In that time, the ACMA issued 75 warnings about telco consumer protection, and more than 3,000 warnings about unsolicited communications. And using our new powers to enforce prohibitions on illegal gambling, we have seen a number of prominent illegal offshore gambling sites have their access to Australians shut down.
Here, I would like to do a plug—we have a table here today, where you can view a variety of ACMA videos that provide tips and advice to consumers across a range of issues. Our newest videos focus on such issues as cabling, and how it can impact the performance of internet services in the home.
One of our most recent interventions as the regulator has aimed to significantly improve consumers’ experience as they move from their current telco service to a service delivered over the National Broadband Network.
The NBN network—with its goal of enabling broadband to be provided to the whole country—will be an essential part of our national infrastructure when complete.
In a perfect world, the migration of consumers to services delivered over the NBN would be seamless. However, the sheer scale and speed of the rollout of NBN network, and the geographical size of the Australian market present real practical challenges and disruptions to both industry and consumers. Also, the extremely complex supply chain can be opaque and confusing, making it difficult for consumers to navigate them.
What we learned
Successive governments have committed to completing the NBN roll-out as quickly as possible, given its potential benefits. While it is understandable that a rapid roll-out would create stresses, it is also reasonable consumers should expect a certain level of ‘service’ during the delivery.
As the anecdotal evidence of consumer distress and confusion mounted, along with the rapid increase in complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, it was clear those service standards weren’t being met. It was also clear that industry co-regulatory arrangements were struggling to service consumers well, in a number of important areas.
In response, the ACMA undertook to investigate what the main consumer ‘pain points’ were through focused consumer research. As an information-based regulator, research is the foundation of all our work. This enables us to look at outcomes from both the consumer and industry points of view.
So, between November 2017 and February 2018, we surveyed 1,881 residential households and 1,153 small and medium-sized businesses that had connected their phone and/or internet services to deliver over the NBN in the previous 12 months. And I must be quite fair here, our research was undertaken at a particular point-in-time. Its results, therefore, pre-date many of the concerted and collective efforts of the industry, NBN Co and government to improve the migration experience.
But at that time, our research showed that most households and businesses had a positive experience, there were some issues: 31% of households, and 42% of businesses had made at least one complaint to their telco.
Some of the other findings included:
- More than one-third—34%—of households and 40% of businesses indicated they experienced a period without a home phone and/or internet service during migration. 16% of households and 14% of businesses reported that they lost one or both of their services for more than one week during migration.
- Increasingly common was the lack of information given to consumers about the available services and their choices. This included lack of certainty about the speed of services available: 29% of households considered cost as the most important factors when choosing a plan or RSP, followed by 21% who put internet speed as the most important factor.
- While 75% of all households and 69% of businesses agreed they understood the steps involved in connecting, slightly more than half—53% of all households, and 55% of businesses—agreed they did not understood the different responsibilities of NBN Co and RSPs in connecting to the NBN.
- There was too much ‘buck-passing’. A key problem revealed by the research was a lack of accountability, with complaints being ‘hand-balled’ between parties in the NBN supply chain, which extended complaint resolution times.
What we have done
From our research, it was obvious that a significant number of consumers were losing confidence in migrating to services provided over the NBN. So, the ACMA has moved to put in place new rules that aim to ensure a smoother migration.
The outcomes of those rules are that:
- Firstly, consumers will have the information they need to make informed choices about the NBN service that is right for them:
- retail service providers must provide consumers with the information needed to choose the NBN service and the plan that is right for the consumer, before signing up to a service.
- Secondly, consumers will have greater confidence that their new service will work, and will work as promised. Telcos will need to promptly check all new connections to make sure there is connectivity. They also need to verify any existing copper line connecting a customer to their new NBN service is capable of delivering the maximum data speed or speed tier specified in their chosen plan and provide remedies if that data speed plan can’t be supplied.
- Thirdly, consumers will have options if issues arise that mean their new service will take more time to work than planned:
- if a new NBN connection doesn’t work immediately, the RSPs have to provide an alternative—that might mean an uplift in their mobile data allowance; a billing rebate or payment to cover the data charges. Or if disconnected for more than three days, the telco must put back in the old service, or give the consumer an alternative option such as Wi-Fi.
- Fourthly, consumers will have their complaints heard and addressed effectively:
- now RSPs have to acknowledge all consumer complaints within two working days, use their best efforts to resolve complaints on first contact, and otherwise, resolve complaints within 15 working days.
- Finally, carriers and service providers in the NBN supply chain must now provide the required ‘reasonable assistance’ to each other to manage consumer migrations and resolve complaints—we will specifically focus on any evidence of continuing ‘buck passing’.
All these new rules will all be in force by 21 September—indeed, next week.
Although making the new rules was an important step towards improving the experience of consumers migrating to the NBN, the ACMA’s job is not done.
The ACMA has put the telcos on notice that they need to fully understand the new rules and take immediate steps to embed them in their business practices.
Unlike co-regulatory industry codes, the new rules will be immediately and directly enforceable by the ACMA. We have released a ‘statement of approach’, which you can view on our website. It has more detail about our approach to compliance and enforcement of the new rules. And we have already commenced a targeted program of monitoring, audits and investigations to ensure early industry compliance.
The ACMA’s monitoring will include using new record-keeping rules that allow us to use the telcos own data to stay informed. We will also plan to publish a quarterly report on the outcomes of compliance and enforcement activities.
Where we identify a potential breach of the new rules, we will take prompt action that is proportionate to the risks and harms involved. Actions range from formal warnings, to remedial directions and infringement notices, to initiation of proceedings in the Federal Court.
If a telco breaches an industry standard, the ACMA can commence court proceedings seeking remedies such as injunctions and civil penalties of up to $250,000. For breaching a service provider rule, the maximum civil penalty a court can impose is $10 million.
The time-critical nature of the NBN rollout means that early and consistent industry compliance with the new rules is essential, and we are continuing to work on improving the experience of consumers through this prioritised compliance and enforcement program.
I have no doubt that we are now looking towards a future where communications services are absolutely central to the economic and social lives of all Australians. Consumer voices will be critical in informing policy and regulatory settings to ensure we all reap the benefits of those services.
We at the ACMA consider that we have a vital role to play in the development of such settings. To accentuate that role, I can announce today that Full-time Authority Member, Fiona Cameron, will take an Authority Lead in the area of consumer safeguards. This role will stretch across TCP Codes, NBN migration issues and unsolicited communications and more. It is great that Fiona has the opportunity at this conference to meet so many stakeholders—perfect timing, thank you ACCAN.
The concept of Authority Leads comes out of the Review of the ACMA conducted by the Department of Communications and the Arts in 2016. It will provide a focal point for the staff and stakeholders on issues of concerns at the Authority level.
I will have more to say on Authority Leads in the coming weeks.
In closing, I would like to thank ACCAN again for the opportunity to address you this morning.
It is clear that the new emerging communications technologies, ranging from the new broadband network to coming of 5G, present enormous opportunities for economic growth and social inclusion.
Consumer and user confidence are prerequisites for participation in this new digital environment. The ACMA will continue to help consumers to manage the uncertainty and disruption that these new technologies bring so the benefits can be enjoyed by all Australians.