The ACMA and the ACCC have been very active in the telco space this year, pursuing a number of phone and internet providers on various issues. We summarise a selection of these below.
Disadvantaged and vulnerable customers
The ACMA declared that dealings with disadvantaged and vulnerable customers were a compliance priority. In January, following an audit, the ACMA found that Southern Phone Company Ltd breached consumer protection rules regarding disadvantaged and vulnerable customers as not all sales staff had completed the required 'Don't take advantage of the Disadvantaged'1 training. In May, the ACMA set out a new industry Statement of Expectations, which made clear that telcos must be proactive in identifying and dealing with vulnerable customers.
Internet speeds again dominated the headlines with the ACCC and the ACMA punishing telcos in this regard. In March, Optus and TPG were required to refund over $4.4 million and $2.1 million respectively, for failing to notify tens of thousands of customers that their internet plans couldn't reach the maximum speed advertised based on the available NBN infrastructure. In December, the ACCC instituted Federal Court proceedings against Telstra for allegedly making false or misleading representations about upload speed to residential broadband customers of its budget brand, Belong.
In April, Telstra paid over $2.2 million in refunds and penalties following billing errors, again in relation to the Belong-branded broadband services. Telstra said the errors were due to its internal systems, including data transfer issues, manual processing errors and outdated employee instructions.
Compliance with industry standards and codes
Non-compliance with the Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code and the Telecommunications (Consumer Complaints Handling) Industry Standard 2018 also cost several other telcos. Actions were brought later this year against Lycamobile for a failure to publish its complaints handling process on its website, and the ACMA has directed Telstra to comply with financial hardship rules. An investigation found Telstra took credit management action against 70 customers who were on a financial hardship arrangement when telcos have an obligation to suspend credit management action while a financial hardship arrangement is in place. Further, in August, the ACMA directed six telcos (AirTel, Just ISP, New Sprout, City Communications, 1Telecom and PennyTel) to comply with the TCP Code for failure to submit annual compliance statements. Meanwhile, Exetel paid an infringement notice of $13,320 after it didn't submit its compliance statement in 2019, and was directed to comply with the TCP Code and failed to do so.
New customer identity authentication rules were published in June to help stop fraud and identity theft of telco customers. The new rules are in the Telecommunications Service Provider (Customer Identity Authentication) Determination 2022 and apply from 30 June 2022. In August, Circles.Life paid a $199,800 infringement notice for not performing the required customer identity checks and offered more than $100,000 in compensation to customers for 1,787 breaches of the Telecommunications (Mobile Number Pre-Porting Additional Identity Verification) Industry Standard 2020 when transferring phone numbers to Circles.Life SIMS. The rules include requirements for multi-factor identification when porting numbers.
Public safety rules
Following an ACMA investigation, Aussie Broadband paid $213,120 in penalties for breaching public safety rules as it didn't provide customer information to the Integrated Public Number Database (IPND) more than 30,000 times from November 2021 to May 2022. Emergency services and law enforcement use the IPND to protect the public.
Optus stole all the headlines in September after a huge cyber-attack affected the personal information of 9.8 million Optus customers. The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) and the ACMA have launched investigations. We have written more on this in our discussion on whether a data breach may lead to a breach of the law and key lessons for the C-suite. Telstra has also experienced several data breach incidents throughout the year.
The ACMA also reinforced the importance of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), in taking Red Telecom and its sole director to the Federal Court to impose penalties of $450,000 for failing to comply with TIO decisions. And four telcos were pursued for contravening the Telecommunications (Consumer Protection and Service Standards) Act 1999 by failing to join the TIO scheme when required. Following investigations, the ACMA directed Hosted Telecommunications Pty Ltd to join the TIO scheme and issued Telink Australia, Account Management Australia and Protech Solutions WA with warnings for failing to join the scheme.
>1 Holding Redlich has run the 'Don't take advantage of the Disadvantaged' training for another telco client which featured sections taught by Pro Bono Lawyer & First Nations Advisor, Nareeta Davis.
This publication does not deal with every important topic or change in law and is not intended to be relied upon as a substitute for legal or other advice that may be relevant to the reader's specific circumstances. If you have found this publication of interest and would like to know more or wish to obtain legal advice relevant to your circumstances please contact one of the named individuals listed.