The first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic saw telco call centres affected by global lockdowns leading to consumers being unable to contact their provider to report their phone or internet complaints. The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman’s latest systemic investigation report, “Impact of COVID-19 on phone and internet complaints” also reveals delays fixing faults and connecting services, and financial difficulty caused by billing problems were the challenges facing residential consumers and small businesses between March and June 2020.

The systemic investigation found phone and internet problems impacted more on people and small businesses because of the need to remain connected in the face of lockdown measures and social distancing rules. Overall Australia’s telecommunication system appears to have coped well with the stresses imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic as complaint numbers were not significantly above usual volumes. However, there were trends directly related to pandemic.

The report highlights examples of how phone and internet problems impacted consumers during this time: elderly consumers had a higher reliance on a single service, generally a landline, and when this service was disrupted many reported an increased sense of isolation; not being able to contact a provider about an incorrect charge on a bill worsened a consumer’s financial situation after they had lost their job, and one restaurant owner couldn’t take phone orders for two weeks when her landline went down due to a problem connecting a new service.  

The report acknowledges the timely response by the telecommunications providers, NBN Co, the government and regulators to quickly improve NBN services and provide temporary financial relief. These measures meant providers could keep complaints under control while continuing to deliver phone and internet services.

The Ombudsman’s Systemic Investigations Team worked with major providers to address issues as they arose, and providers shared information about how the pandemic was affecting their operations and service. By working together, we were able to have early visibility of issues as they arose and collaborate to solve them.

In publishing the report Ombudsman Judi Jones said, “The pandemic has thrown the telecommunications industry and its consumers into a perfect storm. The delivery of reliable phone and internet services was challenged by the closure of overseas call centres and the move of telco operations staff to a work-from-home environment. This collided with our need to remain connected through reliable phone and internet services at a time of heightened uncertainty.

“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.

“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.”

Tips for consumers during COVID-19

If you are experiencing problems contacting your phone or internet provider

  1. Be aware contacting your provider may take longer. Many providers are responding to high customer demand while operating with reduced customer support staff. It may take longer than usual for your provider to assist you.
  2. Try using your provider’s preferred contact method. If your provider is asking customers to contact it using a preferred method, such as online chat, use this method where possible.
  3. Let your provider know if your complaint is urgent. If your complaint is urgent, let your provider know. Your provider should have a suitable way to report urgent issues. Some have a dedicated phone number, online link, or may use technology to find words likely to indicate urgent issues in online complaints.

If you are experiencing a fault, transfer, or connection delay 

  1. Contact your provider to report a service problem. Contact your provider to report a fault or if you are experiencing a delay in transferring or connecting your service. Be prepared to work with your provider to troubleshoot the issue – it may be able to fix the problem remotely. Check your provider’s website for details of any issues affecting services in your area.
  2. Ask for an interim service. Your provider may be able to provide an interim service you can use until your service is restored or connected. Let your provider know if the affected service is your only method of contact, or if you need the service to work or study from home.
  3. Keep your current service active. If you are changing provider, waiting for a new service to be connected or transferring your phone number, keep your current services active.

If you cannot make your regular payments

  1. Tell your provider about your situation. Your provider should make it easy to report hardship, including proactively starting its financial hardship process. It should also promptly assess your circumstances.
  2. Check your provider’s website for relief offers. Some providers have made temporary changes to help customers, such as not penalising late payments or offering a free data upgrade.Know what you can afford. Work together with your provider to find an affordable plan for payment – and then make the payments agreed to. If you need to reduce your ongoing costs and your provider does not offer a suitable post-paid option, consider transferring your services to prepaid.If you have a complaint you have not been able to resolve with your provider, contact us at www.tio.com.au or on 1800 062 058.