With complaints about phone and internet providers soaring, consumer groups are calling for the troubled sector to be regulated the same way as the water or energy industries.
- Advocates say rise in complaints is result of industry "self regulation"
- Consumer groups say the sector needs better regulation
- Communications Alliance spokesman says claims made in letter are inaccurate
In a letter to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, consumer advocates say a review of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TPC) code is industry-dominated, lacks independence and is being rushed.
The letter has been signed by the Consumers Federation of Australia, CHOICE, Consumer Action Law Centre, Financial Counselling Australia, Financial & Consumer Rights Council (FCRC) and COTA Australia.
The TCP code governs the way the providers advertise, sell, and handle complaints and debt, but the consumer groups say the Government needs to better regulate the sector.
"The telco regulation is out of step with consumer protections in other sectors like energy and financial services and it was time for the Federal Government to act," FCRC executive officer Sandy Ross said.
The consumer advocates say the rise in customer complaints is the result of industry "self-regulation".
In the last financial year, complaints to the Telecommunication Industry Ombudsman shot up by 41 per cent and complaints about the National Broadband Network jumped 159 per cent.
Under the Universal Service Obligation only standard landlines and payphones have to be accessible.
The consumer groups want Australia to follow Canada's lead which declared broadband internet a basic telecommunications service last year.
Vulnerable signed to unaffordable deals
"Members of our community cannot pay bills, get important information, or remain socially connected without access to working telco services," Consumers' Federation of Australia chair Gerard Brody told the ABC.
Legal services are reporting an increase in disputes about telcos selling multiple, unaffordable and inappropriate contracts to disadvantaged and vulnerable people.
Melbourne pensioner Elizabeth, 70, who did not want her surname used, is recovering from cancer and has been housebound for the past two years.
She wanted the internet so her mind could escape her four walls.
However, for the past seven months she has been fighting with Telstra after signing up for a bundle internet and landline service that she hasn't been able to use.
"I would have internet access at best for a couple of days, but usually it would drop out after a few hours," she told the ABC.
"The thing is when it dropped out so did my landline and I need a phone for medical emergencies."
Elizabeth said she spent hours with technicians who never fixed "the blasted box" and was also signed up for a premium service that she couldn't afford.
"They would charge me for things they told me I wouldn't be charged for. No two accounts from Telstra are the same," she said.
Industry says claims are inaccurate
Communications Alliance communications CEO John Stanton says the review isn't industry-dominated, pointing the participation of representatives from the peak communications consumer body, ACCAN, industry regulators, government officials and the ombudsman.
"The claims made in the letter are inaccurate," he told the ABC.
"The TCP code process is not a self-regulatory process — it is a 'co-regulatory' process."
Mr Stanton said the code would be enforceable on all providers and says it is neither rushed nor perfunctory.
In a statement, a spokesman for Senator Fifield said all industry codes were enforceable by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) and telcos could face court penalties.
Telecommunications provider FuzeNet was the latest company to be singled out by the ACMA for not properly managing customer complaints, but no penalty was issued.
Senator Fifield's office said the CEOs of all major retailers and the NBN have agreed to improve the customer experience when it comes to the NBN.