NBN service quality complaints on the rise

Complaints about service quality, connections and migrations involving Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) rose in the first six months of 2019, despite complaints relating to the country’s broader telecommunications services falling overall during the year ending June.

This is according to the latest figures by the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO). The TIO’s annual report for the financial year ending June 2019, released on 25 September, paints a picture of increasing complexity among the issues Australians are complaining about when it comes to their telecommunications services.

“Complaints about phone and internet services in Australia have continued their downward trend, and this is good news for consumers and the telecommunications industry, but this is only one part of the story,” said Ombudsman Judi Jones. “The volume of complaints coming back to us unresolved shows an emerging picture of complexity in technical and small business issues.

“Some measures we have taken to address this are the formation of specialist teams to handle these escalated complaints, and working closely with the phone and internet providers to better understand the barriers to resolving these issues,” she said.

According to the TIO, the 12 months from July 2018 to June 2019 saw 47 per cent of escalated complaints closed within 60 days, compared to 77 percent in FY2017-18.

The top five complaint issues about internet services were no action or delayed action by a service provider, with 13,976 complaints, service and equipment fees (13,509 complaints), slow data speed (8,668 complaints), intermittent service/dropouts (7,915) and delay establishing a service (7,431).

At the same time, the top five complaint issues about mobile services were service and equipment fees, with 12,905 complaints, no or delayed action by provider (11,675 complaints), resolution agreed but not met (4,263), misleading conduct when making a contract (3,656) and termination fees (2,975).

Altogether, the TIO received 132,387 complaints throughout the year, representing a year-on-year fall of 21 percent. However, for the first time, complaints relating to internet services exceeded those of mobile services, with 43,164 complaints – or 32.6 percent – and 40,103 complaints, respectively.

Complaints relating to services delivered via the NBN comprised a large portion of the total regarding internet services. According to the report, 23,362 complaints were recorded in FY2018-19 about service quality on the NBN. Complaints increased from 2.1 per 1,000 premises on the network in the first half of the year to 2.5 per 1,000 in the second half of the year.

Services delivered over the NBN were the subject of 48.2 percent of complaints about service quality during the 12-month period. By comparison, 40.4 percent of such complaints revolved around services delivered via other networks. Mobile networks accounted for 11.3 percent of complaints of this nature.

Meanwhile, 11,635 complaints were recorded in FY2018-19 about changing providers or establishing a connection to the NBN. Complaints increased from 6.7 per 1,000 premises added in the first half of the year, to 8.6 in the second half of the 12-month period.

Indeed, 56.4 percent of all complaints relating to connection and changing providers were about services delivered over the NBN. However, this comes as little surprise, given that, as the national broadband wholesaler draws closer to the completion of its rollout, more end consumers are being connected to the network.

“With transition to the NBN, providers offered a range of new products and services. As a result, we saw a new range of complaints and enquiries from consumers navigating the changed environment. The increase in complaints about internet services is one example of this,” the TIO report stated.

By comparison, such complaints involving services delivered via other networks accounted for 30.6 percent of the total, while mobile network services were at the centre of 13 percent of complaints about connection or changing providers.

Unsurprisingly, the country’s largest telecommunications player, Telstra, claimed the lion’s share of complaints, accounting for roughly 50.2 percent, although it should be noted that the company enjoyed a 19.5 percent fall in complaints from the previous year’s tally of 82,528.

Optus, as the country’s second largest telco, came in second, with 23.9 percent of the total. Like Telstra, Optus saw a fall in complaints against its name, enjoying a 22.2 decrease, year-on-year. Optus was followed by Vodafone, iiNet and TPG Internet, with 5.1 percent of the total, 4.3 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively. All experienced a year-on-year decrease.

“We are pleased to see that complaints decreased in every state, and for all of the providers listed in the report,” said John Stanton, CEO of telecommunications industry body, the Communications Alliance.

“There has been significant work over the past two years by Industry to improve the customer experience, including – but certainly not limited to – NBN Co and RSPs [retail service providers] achieving better communication and coordination for consumers and businesses as they migrate services to NBN-based networks,” he said.

Aussie telcos ordered to keep blocking sites hosting Christchurch terror footage

The federal government has ordered Australia’s largest internet service providers (ISPs) to keep blocking eight websites hosting footage of the terrorist attacks last March in Christchurch, New Zealand along with the manifesto of the alleged gunman.

The direction, issued by the office of the government’s eSafety Commissioner on 9 September, compels ISPs to implement a six month block, during which time the eSafety Commissioner will review and remove sites from the list if and when the offending content is taken down.

The action comes several months after the country’s major telcos, including Optus, Telstra and Vodafone, independently moved to block more than 40 websites that were hosting video of the attacks or the manifesto of the alleged perpetrator in the days immediately following the Christchurch attacks.

The ISPs, as members of a task force subsequently set up by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and tasked with looking into terror and violent online content, pressed the Government to provide some direction, given that the ISPs did not have a clear legal footing for the action they had taken independently.

As such, the new direction, the first of its kind exercised by the eSafety Commissioner, is expected to offer ISPs certainty to continue their blocking activities, while also clearing the way for ISPs to remove the blocks they had voluntarily placed on other websites that have since taken down the material.

“Australian internet service providers acted quickly and responsibly in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Christchurch in March this year to block websites that were hosting this harmful material,” said Paul Fletcher, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts.

“ISPs called on the Government to provide them with certainty and clarity in taking the action they did, and today, we are providing that certainty,” he said.

The eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, meanwhile, has consulted with both ISPs and website administrators, giving the websites in question “ample opportunity” to remove the content.

“Those hosting this material do so in the full knowledge that Australia will take action to halt its continued proliferation,” Inman Grant said. “The remaining rogue websites need only to remove the illegal content to have the block against them lifted.”

According to John Stanton, CEO of telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance, the direction has been welcomed by the country’s ISPs.

“Industry recognised that this was the right thing to do, without explicit Government direction, and we are pleased to see the framework that is now in place as a result of constructive collaboration between industry, government and its agencies,” he said.

The eSafety Commissioner is continuing to work with industry to develop an additional protocol to govern the rapid removal of terrorist and extreme violent material in a crisis event which, according to Inman, is expected to be undertaken infrequently.

“The decision to block websites will be taken only under extraordinary circumstances and will need to meet an extremely high threshold,” said Inman Grant.

Vodafone Australia concedes it misled customers over direct billing service

Vodafone Australia has become the third local telco to be hit by the Australian competition watchdog over direct billing services.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said on 16 July that Vodafone Australia had admitted to making false or misleading representations about its now defunct third-party Direct Carrier Billing (DCB) service.

Similar to services previously offered by Telstra, Optus and other telcos, Vodafone’s DCB service let the telco’s customers purchase online software and services from third parties, with the charges for that digital content then billed directly to Vodafone customers’ accounts.

According to the ACCC, Vodafone’s DCB service was automatically enabled on its customers’ mobile accounts, meaning purchases could occur in just a couple of clicks, without any identity verification, and be charged back to customers’ next Vodafone bill.

It should be noted that the content was marketed and provided by third parties who paid Vodafone a commission for sales to end customers.

According to the ACCC, Vodafone likely breached the ASIC Act from at least 2015 by charging consumers for content they had not agreed to buy or bought unknowingly.

Vodafone has offered up a court enforceable undertaking that compels it identify, contact and refund customers from as far back as January 2013 who complained either directly to the telco or via the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) about the DCB service.

According to the court enforceable undertaking, published by the ACCC, Vodafone was aware of issues with its DCB service from at least February 2015. These included a two-fold increase in revenue but a three-fold increase in complaints about the DCB service received in the 2014-15 financial year, compared to the year prior.

Moreover, according to the undertaking document, Vodafone agrees that from at least February 2015, it was aware that the operation of its DCB service had led to customers unintentionally purchasing DCB content without their knowledge or consent.

The ACCC, which carried the investigation into Vodafone’s DCB service under a delegation of the Australian corporate regulator’s powers, said that Vodafone began phasing out DCB subscriptions in mid-2015 in response to an increase in complaints about the service, cancelling its arrangements with some third-party content providers.

However, according to the ACCC, customers could still be charged for one-off purchases without any identity verification until March 2018.

“Through this service, thousands of Vodafone customers ended up being charged for content that they did not want or need, and were completely unaware that they had purchased,” ACCC Chair Rod Sims said. “Other companies should note, money made by misleading consumers will need to be repaid.”

While Vodafone follows Optus and Telstra in being pulled up by the competition watchdog over its direct billing service, it appears to have avoided being slapped with the $10 million fine the two larger telcos were handed over representations relating to their respective direct billing services.

In February, after action by the ACCC, the Federal Court ordered Optus pay a $10 million fine for its “treatment of customers” who unknowingly purchased games, ringtones and other digital content through its third-party billing service. Additionally, Optus committed to refunding affected customers.

Last year, the Federal Court ordered Telstra to pay a $10 million fine for making false or misleading representations to customers in relation to its third-party billing service known as “Premium Direct Billing” (PDB). Telstra also agreed to refund affected customers.

Fletcher cites rule of law after dousing Telstra’s NBN ambitions

Australia’s Minister for Communications Paul Fletcher has doubled down on comments he made rejecting the idea that a sale of the National Broadband Network (NBN) to Telstra, or indeed any telecommunications retailer, would be possible under current legislation

In an exclusive interview with The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and The Age, Fletcher said that he did not see any scenario in which the “very clear legislative restriction on the NBN being owned by a company which is also a retailer of telecommunications services is changed”.

This definition, of course, captures Telstra, along with the other primary telcos in the country. Moreover, Fletcher indicated that he believes any sale of the network, the rollout of which is set to be finished next year, would still be “quite some time away”.

Fletcher’s comments come roughly a month after Telstra CEO Andy Penn told The Australian Financial Review that when NBN Co does eventually become privatised, he’d like Telstra to be in a position to participate, with the telco’s standalone infrastructure business unit, InfraCo, “giving us that optionality”.

In a subsequent statement to Telecom Times, Fletcher said that his comments regarding the sale of NBN Co were simply stating the law, as set out in the National Broadband Network Companies Act 2011, that the NBN as a wholesale network cannot be owned by a company that also provides retail services.

“Clearly any such future sale of NBN Co at the appropriate time would be structured in a way that is in the public interest and mindful among other things of the operation and the competitiveness of the broader market,” Fletcher said.

“It is way too premature to speculate on how any such sale would be structured and who may participate in that process.

“The government’s priority is to complete the NBN rollout as quickly as possible and at least cost to taxpayers,” he said.

Fletcher’s reiteration of the legislative restraints on the eventual sale of NBN Co have unsurprisingly been met with enthusiasm by some in the industry. Commpete, an alliance of challenger digital communications providers, lauded Fletcher’s perceived rejection of any prospect of Telstra buying the NBN.

“NBN was created in large part to separate the monopoly access network from Telstra’s retail business to stop anti-competitive market manipulation that had made Australia one of the least competitive telecommunications markets in the world,” Commpete said in a statement.

“Recent speculation that Telstra would buy the NBN would signal the end of this commitment to competition, and Minister Fletcher has done the right thing by ruling it out,” the alliance added.

While Fletcher’s comments regarding NBN Co’s privatisation have quelled concerns in the industry that may have emerged amid speculation that Telstra would vie for the network builder, his comments about NBN wholesale pricing have been met with discord.

In his interview with the SMH and The Age, Fletcher effectively ruled out Government intervention in wholesale pricing for services on the network, instead suggesting that “the sensible approach is for the board and management of NBN Co to make pricing decisions”, within regulatory bounds.

Again, Fletcher has subsequently doubled down on his comments, pointing to existing arrangements with the country’s competition watchdog and an ongoing industry consultation process with regard to pricing.

“NBN wholesale pricing decisions are a matter for the NBN Co board and management,” the Communications Minister told Telecom Times, noting that NBN Co’s wholesale prices are set in accordance with the caps specified in its Special Access Undertaking (SAU) with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

“In turn, retail service providers need to make their own commercial decisions when setting their retail prices,” Fletcher said. “NBN Co commenced a consultation process with industry on 20 June 2019 to review its wholesale products and prices.

“This process will continue over the coming months so NBN Co’s wholesale offerings meet the needs of both retail service providers and consumers,” he said.

However, wholesale pricing has been a matter of concern for many retailers, with the country’s largest telecommunications provider, Telstra, being among the most vocal.

“…as we migrate to the NBN, with the current wholesale pricing, the margins will – the EBITDA margins – will trend towards zero,” Telstra’s then CFO Robyn Denholm said in the company’s HY19 financial results briefing. “And that is because of the wholesale pricing aspect. We’re working like crazy to reduce our cost to connect and our cost to serve for NBN.”

Optus, meanwhile, has also flagged wholesale pricing as an issue that needs to be addressed for NBN services to be provided to end customers in a way that is sustainable in the long-term.

“Optus supports the view that a further assessment of NBN’s pricing structure is a priority. This will help to ensure NBN retailers such as Optus can continue to deliver great value to customers on a more sustainable basis,” an Optus spokesperson told Telecom Times. 

“We also encourage NBN remove the CVC component in their pricing, which is an ineffective way to charge for this infrastructure and is out of step with retail markets,” the spokesperson said.

Optus cops return to court over alleged NBN disconnection claims

BREAKING NEWS

Optus has acknowledged new legal action by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and “admitted its mistake,” after the regulator today instituted proceedings in the Federal Court against the Singtel-owned telco, alleging it misled consumers about the need to move to the NBN or risk being cut off.

According to the ACCC, on 24 May 2018 Optus sent an email offering its NBN broadband services to 138,988 of its mobile customers, advising them that their broadband service would be ‘disconnected very soon’ and encouraging them to ‘make the switch, before it’s too late.’

The ACCC said it alleges this was a false or misleading claim, adding that when the email was sent, Optus knew the recipients of the email were already being provided with NBN-based services by another company, and Optus did not have any reasonable basis for saying they would be disconnected.

0“Optus acknowledges the ACCC’s action today and its mistake,” said the telco’s VP of regulatory and public affairs Andrew Sheridan. “Optus has apologised to customers who received the mistaken communication and offered a costless exit for those who took out the offer.”

The ACCC – which is now seeking declarations, injunctions, pecuniary penalties, compliance orders and costs – also reiterated how on 22 May 2018, following the regulator’s action, the Federal Court ordered Optus pay penalties of $1.5 million for making misleading representations to customers about their transition from the telco’s HFC network to the NBN.

“Moving to the NBN is an important decision for consumers, and it can also be a confusing process,” ACCC Commissioner Sarah Court said today. “The ACCC has had to take action about Optus’ advertising on several previous occasions, and it is concerning that we are again having to take them to court for alleged misleading statements about this issue.”

“We are keeping a close eye on this sector and we will continue to take enforcement action where appropriate,” Court added.

Fixed line data dominates Australia’s download tally despite mobile internet surge

MAIN STORY

Suggestions that Australia’s fixed line broadband data dominance is set to play second fiddle to mobile broadband services might need a reality check, with wireless broadband accounting for just three percent of the total data downloaded in the December quarter.

The latest figures from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) show that the vast majority – 91 percent – of all internet downloads were served by fixed line broadband services in the three months ending December 2018. According to the ACCC, Australians downloaded approximately 5.1 million terabytes in the quarter.

This is despite reports that 5G broadband offerings by some of Australia’s leading mobile telcos have the potential to disrupt the ongoing viability of fixed line broadband services provided by the country’s somewhat beleaguered National Broadband Network (NBN).

According to the ACCC’s Internet Activity Report – December 2018 [PDF], released on 14 May, the total volume of data downloaded in the three months ending December was 5.1 million terabytes, with fibre internet connections accounting for the greatest majority proportion of total; fixed line/wired connections, followed by DSL.

According to the report, there was a substantially smaller amount of data downloaded via mobile handsets and wireless broadband over the same period, with the wireless technologies representing six percent and three percent of the overall data download volume in its entirety during the period.

By comparison, around six percent of the broadband data downloaded in Australia during the period was done so via mobile handsets, and approximately three percent via wireless broadband.

However, the latest figures also show that the most common way consumers accessed the internet during the period was through mobile handsets, with 24.3 million of the estimated 39.9 million broadband services in operation during the quarter being attributed to mobile handsets.

“This report provides a clear indication that while consumers are most often using their phones to access the internet, when downloading significant content they currently favour fixed line connections,” ACCC Commissioner Cristina Cifuentes said.

At the same time, the report suggested that the imminent arrival of 5G products and services will likely support greater increases in the volume of data downloaded via mobile handsets and wireless broadband access technologies.

All in all, the ACCC estimates that the total number of retail broadband services in operation (SIOs) reached 39.9 million as of the end of last year, with 24.3 million of these services made up of mobile handsets, 8.4 million wireless broadband and 7.2 million fixed-line or wired broadband.

To put this into context, Australia’s population was 25,370, 917 at the time of writing, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

Which major Aussie city suffers from the slowest mobile download speeds?

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Of Australia’s five largest cities, Sydney experienced the slowest average mobile download speeds across the country’s three big wireless network providers, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, during the three months ending 31 March, new research shows.

In Sydney, the average mobile download speed experience across all three of the major mobile operators during the three-month period was 40.3 megabits per second (Mbps), based on figures in new analysis by mobile analytics firm Opensignal.

The 40.3 Mbps download scorecard for Sydney was drawn from an average mobile download rate of 48.6 Mbps for Telstra, 39.1 Mbps for Optus and 33.3 Mbps from Vodafone, as outlined in Opensignal’s latest Australia Mobile Network Experience Report, which took in over 489 million measurements from some 110,000 devices during the period.

For Melbourne, the average download speed across the three mobile network providers came to 41.2 Mbps, with Telstra in the lead at an average of 48.8 Mbps during the period, followed by Vodafone with 38.5 Mbps and Optus, which claimed an average of 36.3 Mbps.

Meanwhile, Perth saw an average download speed experience of 50.6 Mbps from Telstra, 38.6 Mbps from Optus and 35.8 Mbps from Vodafone, equating to an average download speed of 41.7 Mbps across all providers during the period.

According to the research, Telstra scored an average download speed experience of 55.7 Mbps in Brisbane, with Optus and Vodafone trailing with 38.9 Mbps and 34.9 Mbps, respectively — equating to an average of 43.2 Mbps across all three providers.

Adelaide enjoyed the fastest speed overall, compared to the other major cities, seeing an average download speed during the period of 47.6 Mbps across all three providers, with Telstra, Optus and Vodafone claiming 63.2 Mbps, 43 Mbps and 36.7 Mbps, respectively.

Opensignal’s research also revealed that, across the country, Telstra claimed an average download speed experience of 41.1 Mbps, putting it in top place in terms of download speed, followed by Optus and Vodafone, both of which claimed average download speeds of over 30 Mbps — 36.4 Mbps and 32.8 Mbps, respectively.

Additionally, the report revealed that, on a national scale, Optus claims the highest 4G availability rating, with an availability score of 91.9 percent, followed by Vodafone with a score of 90.3 percent and Telstra with a score of 89.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Optus and Vodafone drew in terms of latency, with Optus claiming an average latency experience of 34.6 milliseconds (ms), compared to Vodafone’s 34.4 ms. For its part, Telstra’s average latency experience over the period was 41.8 ms, according to the report.