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Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman powers up

  • TIO getsnew powers in resolving disputes
  • TIO as industry watchdog rewarded
  • Learn how to get help if you're having issues with your provider
Written by Mikaella Clements

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) will have strengthened powers from July 1st to help in its role of handling customer complaints and standing up for individual customers and small businesses against the sometimes overwhelmingly large corporate businesses that make up Australia's telcos.

The added power has come in an increase of the monetary value of the complaints the TIO can legally help with, as well as a change to the classification of a small business.

The TIO will now have the ability to give legally binding directions to providers of up to $50,000 in value (previously $30,000) and to make recommendations up to $100,000 (previously $85,000).

Frustrated customer

Having trouble with your provider? The TIO is here to help!

The TIO has also changed its definition of a small business. It is now available to service businesses with an annual turnover that is under $3 million and that employs up to 20 people. However, the TIO has also stated its commitment to considering all aspects of the case that is brought to them even when these conditions are not met. It will look at the issues in dispute, the nature of the business (e.g. whether it is not for profit or operated from home), and whether the business is independently owned and funded by a small number of individuals who make most of the important business decisions.

Ombudsman Simon Cohen said: "An increase in powers is always a good thing for consumers who cannot resolve the issues they are having with their service providers."

The TIO recently released a quarterly report of their complaint statistics from January to March of 2012. The report highlighted the fact that, while telcos have made a real effort to turn around the number of complaints they receive about certain issues, the need for an independent dispute resolution service like the TIO is still very necessary within the Australian industry.

It's particularly obvious when it comes to such tricky issues as data plans and excess usage costs for those plans. Australians are hit on a daily basis by the nasty concept of bill shock: that is, receiving a massive bill for the telecommunication services they thought they were using accurately. In many cases, the TIO is able to step in and help liaise with the provider in question to solve any issues that the customer is having.

One case that the TIO has highlighted was that of the owner of a small pharmacy who was billed more than $8,000 for going over her internet usage limit. She had recently upgraded to broadband after using dial-up for all of her life, and the service provider had failed to adequately show her how to check how much data she was using, and warn her when she got close to reaching her limit for the month. When she went over the data limit for her plan, the provider continued not to inform her nor restrict her service even as the bill soared into the thousands.

The TIO ruled that in this way the service provider had contributed to the woman's high bill and that they would have to compromise with her to an agreeable end. The provider agreed to lower her bill, and only charged her for the amount that she would have been hit with had the service provider taken steps to limit her usage.

It's in this way that the TIO performs an important role within the Australian telecommunications landscape. Big corporations need a watchdog, and Australia is lucky to have the TIO and the ACCC, both of whom are there to keep an eye on the way the corporations sell.

The ACCC manages this on a bigger level, cracking down on misleading advertising and watching out for hidden charges and a lack of transparency that keeps customers from having all the facts before they sign up for a plan or buy a product. The TIO takes over on an individual level, sorting out problems that happen with individuals or small businesses once they've already signed up and are on an existing plan with a provider that is causing them difficulty.

We're lucky in Australia to have a reasonably good time when it comes to mobile plans. In other countries, like the US, providers will require massive down payments on phones before they agree to sign you up, whereas here we can get a phone essentially "for free" as long as we're willing to go on a 24 month contract. However, providers can still find a way to disturb and trouble their customers, whether it be through bill shock at the end of a month, hidden fees and a general lack of transparency, or network and technology problems. Here at Compare Mobile Plans, we hear many horror stories as customers call up to find a new provider after a bad experience with their old one. Some of them tell us about experiences with the TIO being able to step in and help them escape a large and uncalled for bill.

The TIO plays a great role in being able to control some of this, and at Compare Mobile Plans we're happy to see them being invested with new powers. It's good news for Australian customers and, in its own way, good news for telcos: by holding them to a higher standard, we can only hope to improve relationships between corporations and their customers, and make the telco industry a profitable thing for everyone involved.

Are you having trouble with your provider?

Keep in mind that the TIO cannot step in to help you until you go through certain steps on your own, a key one of which is doing your best to sort out the problem with your provider on your own.

Escalate the issue as much as possible, but keep in mind that getting angry will not help and the best thing to do is keep careful records and know exactly what your problem is and what your ideal solution would be. Sometimes it can be helpful to write yourself a note detailing such things as your plan type, the problems involved, and what you need help with along with such details as your account number and password, if you have these, so that you can remain calm and in control while talking to your ISP.

Click here for our guide to getting the best out of technical support and customer service.

Want help finding a phone and a plan?
If you'd like to talk to us at Compare Mobile Plans about what phone and plan would suit you, feel free to give us a call on 1300 850 518. We'll go through all the charges you can expect and make sure that there's nothing in the plan that will catch you out or surprise you come the end of the month! As an independent service, we can recommend various providers and talk about the pros and cons involved with all of them, as well as who will best suit your needs.

Or take a look at some of Australia's favourite smartphones: the Apple iPhone 4S 16GB, the HTC One X, or, to try something different, the brand new Samsung Galaxy SIII.


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