First, I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we all meet today— the Gadigal people of the Eora nation in Sydney and the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation in Melbourne. I pay my respects to elders past, present and future.
It will come as no surprise to anyone in the room that the communications sector has been in a tumultuous period of change. Understatement of the day, I am sure.
We are nearing the peak of the NBN rollout—approximately 31,000 connections a week are taking place across the country; on target for eight million connected homes in 2020, with the ultimate aim of bridging the digital divide. This is a significant undertaking for industry, as all Australians are faced with a decision to move their services.
5G is on the horizon and presents an enormous opportunity for business and new offerings for consumers.
Consumers are continuing to expand the range of devices and services they use. In 2017–18, the number of adults using five or more devices jumped to 40% … how many do you have, about your person, right now?
There has also been an explosion of data use by consumers, with mobile downloads increasing five-fold and fixed-line downloads almost tripling from 2014 to 2018—Netflix, anyone? With temptation, however, can come pain, and we have seen vulnerable consumers caught in challenging circumstances; signing up to new services and racking up bills that they simply cannot afford.
Consumer and business expectations continue to increase—communications is now considered an essential service across the economy.
In most households with teenage kids, the internet not working is more outrageous than no running water.
Telcos are also engaging with their customers across more and more channels. Live chat and social media are now common channels to sell services or respond to issues.
Whilst these channels are user-friendly, they do pose challenges. How do you manage consumer expectations and deal with complex issues? How do you ensure fair and transparent dealings, and how do you manage compliance and embed an appropriate compliance culture throughout your organisation?
It has been against this backdrop that industry, consumer groups and government agencies have been reviewing the (TCP) Code. It has been a lengthy process. We acknowledge that code amendments require significant investment in process and cultural change.
We consider, however, that the changes are necessary and proportionate to the harm, sometimes very significant, to sections of the community—more on this in a moment.
At the start of the code review process, NBN was, of course, the big focus. Back in mid-2017, we had significant evidence that existing co-regulation wasn’t enough to assist consumers and businesses through the migration. That is why we put in place new rules. These rules are designed to:
- give consumers the information they need to choose an NBN plan that works for them
- test that their new NBN service is working as promised
- provide an interim service to the consumer, or reconnect the consumer’s old service if there are delays getting the new NBN service working
- move swiftly to resolve consumer complaints—drawing in other companies in the NBN service supply chain where necessary and stopping the ‘buck-passing’ of complaints between providers and NBN Co.
Since the rules were introduced, there have been some signs that complaints are heading in the right direction. From July to December 2018, there was 6.7 complaints to the TIO per 1000 premises regarding connections or changing providers, down from 9.2 at the same time in 2017.
This shows the ability for regulatory models to adapt and address pressing issues. New rules have helped with how customer complaints are dealt with.
Our new record keeping rules, which tally complaints from a massive 41.5 million services in operations supplied by 30 reporting providers, do show that the proportion of complaints referred by the TIO is down for the six months to year end 2018. On the flip side, however, the total number of complaints to individual telcos had increased over the two quarters.
While there are many reasons for these patterns (better explained when we release the data in the next few days) complaint levels are still high.
ACMA areas of concern
NBN issues were not our only area of concern. There was evidence that the rules around industry selling practices, credit assessment and hardship needed close examination.
There were concerning trends from a range of sources:
- research such as the Financial and Consumer Rights Council’s ‘Rank the Telco Report’ showed concerns with existing industry processes
- members of our Consumer Consultative Forum were also highlighting some emerging concerns with consumers being signed up to multiple services, sometimes beyond their financial capacity
- our monitoring activities found deficiencies in the code rules that needed to be addressed to improve consumer outcomes.
These issues have also been highlighted in recent media reports relating to ACCC investigations. These sources pointed to a weakness in the existing rules, with a clear gap between community expectations and provider obligations.
The impact of this is serious, particularly for those in vulnerable circumstances, leading to financial hardship and denial of access to critical services.
The TCP Code review has provided industry the opportunity to address these concerns and take the lead in delivering better consumer outcomes.
While Jess will provide a comprehensive overview of the changes, I wish to highlight the changes to selling practices, credit assessment and financial hardship.
Telcos will be required to sell their products in a fair, transparent, responsible and accurate manner to assist consumers to make informed decisions, as well as clearly explaining key terms and conditions.
Strengthened credit assessment provisions now apply to all new customers on total contracts of more than $1000 (typically $45 per month). These provisions will also apply to pre-paid customers moving to post-paid accounts whether with the same provider or not. For these customers, you must:
- obtain details about financial capacity
- obtain an external credit check.
We consider there is a fine balance between financial overcommitment and denying access to an essential service, or, providing a responsive, modern or affordable service to all Australians while balancing the needs of the more vulnerable in our community. We think the current provisions strike the right balance. However, we will be monitoring them closely.
A new chapter of the code on financial hardship contains increased and more specific requirements on what telcos must include in their financial hardship policies.
This includes providing at least three options for keeping customers connected, such as transferring to a pre-paid service or spend controls. Furthermore, customers must be provided with at least three options for suitable financial arrangements—case-dependent.
Code obligations for training have been enhanced, with a broad obligation requiring that suppliers have systems and processes in place. There are also more specific requirements that providers ensure that staff are able to interact with disadvantaged and vulnerable consumers appropriately.
I urge you to familiarise yourselves with the new obligations now before they commence on the 1st of August.
This year, the ACMA has released a single set of compliance priorities for the financial year.
When setting these new priorities a few months ago, we considered matters of significant public interest and concern including where we are seeing conduct that negatively impacts consumers. In addition, we had an eye to the new TCP Code.
Selling practices, credit assessment and financial hardship will be a focus of our compliance work.
Our team has developed a detailed compliance plan and that will kick off on the 1st of August when the new code comes into force.
While I will not go into specifics of what we are planning, I will say that we are looking for real change. Fair and transparent practices, new policies and greater support for consumers should be visible from day one.
We will be undertaking our compliance work in new ways to get a full picture of what is happening in the sector. We will not be shy in taking action and recommending further changes if we consider the rules fall short.
Having said all this, we are not acting for the sake of it. Our actions will ultimately be driven by consumer reaction. The TCP Code provides an opportunity for the sector to do things better and get us to back off.
In the spirit of getting out of the way of business—co-regulation can work well, but it will only work if business (in this case telcos) do the right thing by their customers—the new TCP code is an opportunity for the sector to enter a new era of co-regulation and improved customer satisfaction.
We are hoping to see positive results. Thank you for the opportunity to speak.