New Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code Met With Great Reception

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Historically, complaints to the telecommunications ombudsman greatly exceed the national average for complaints by consumers for other services. Common points of contention and frustration included consumers lacking timely and comprehensive information regarding their mobile plan. Customers complained that critical information, such as when they were close to exceeding their “usage cap,” was not available in a timely manner. Further, the cost of certain basic units of service (the cost of an SMS, the cost of a standard domestic mobile call and one megabyte of data), the lack of transparency in the complaint making process and finally, the confusing and often misleading advertisements rounded off consumer complains. The new Telecommunications Consumer Protection code (most of which will be effective from 1 September 2012) has been heralded as the solution to the above problems.

The code shifts the onus onto telecommunication providers to ensure the following.

In advertising telecommunications, providers must refrain from using the term “cap” misleadingly, and only use it in circumstances when it is a “hard cap,” which cannot be exceeded. Also the unit cost of one SMS, one standard two minute domestic mobile phone call and one megabyte of data must be clearly advertised. Finally, in the realm of advertising all claims about data speeds, such as broadband speeds, must be reasonably substantiated (the cut-off date for implementing all of the above is 27 October 2012).
The provision of a Critical Information Summary statement outlining pertinent information detailing essential service terms including, but not limited to, pricing arrangements and complaint resolutions processes, (the cut-off date for implementing the above is 1 March 2013).

The provision to consumers of notifications for certain thresholds of usage when their value included plans reach 50, 85 and 100% of the total advertised usage. These notifications must be made within a 48 hour window from when the usage was reached, and must include disclosures of charges which apply once usage has been exceeded. In line with the above spend management initiatives, providers must also give information on international roaming charges and, further, can only access customer security deposits in narrowly defined circumstances. The cut-off date for implementing the above in relation to data plans is 1 September 2013 for all providers; while the cut-off date for compliance for SMS and voice calling plan providers is 1 September 2013 and 1 September 2014 for large and small suppliers respectively.

When billing customers, providers must not bill customers for charges older than 160 days. Further, providers must have a ready record of a customer’s 24 month billing cycle, which must be made available to the customer free of charge. Finally, when a direct debit payment scheme has been authorised, 10 days notice must be given before each direct debit (the cut-off date for implementing all of the above is 1 March 2013).

Complaints are now to be taken more seriously. The code mandates that all complaints must be acknowledged within two days (and customers are to be provided with a unique complaint code to track progress and streamline the record keeping of complaints) and resolved within three weeks. There are also provisions for the special circumstances which constitute urgent complaints which must be resolved within two days. Suppliers must now also proactively promote the services of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman as a complaint resolution vehicle, (the cut-off date for implementing all of the above is 1 March 2013).

Finally, the industry is obliged to undertake “Communications Compliance”, where compliance with the code is measured and continuously monitored in the context of clearly defined customer service metrics and regulatory benchmarks, (the cut-off date for implementing the above is 1 March 2013).

While most consumers may feel that enough information about pricing and so forth is available from the large telecommunications providers (an impression created by sheer volume of text, fine print and cumbersome contracts) the aim of the new code is to increase the quality and simplicity of the information provided by these entities. This simplicity allows consumers to make more informed decisions when purchasing and comparing usage plans, while also alleviating the trauma of an unexpected “bill shock”.

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