How effective is telco complaints scheme?

The government’s latest paper reviewing the Telco Act devotes 80 pages to regulating the fixed line network as it transitions from copper to fibre and about 15 pages to the rest of the telco sector. Tucked right at the back, on pages 94 and 95, are questions raised about the telco complaints scheme, called the Telecommunications Dispute Resolution service (TDR). The scheme is controlled by the vendor association Telecommunications Carriers Forum and the way it works is based on a code of practice created in 2007.

Currently wholesale fixed line providers like Chorus and the other companies building the UFB network (eg Enable in Christchurch, Ultra Fast Fibre in central North Island, and Northpower in Whangarei) aren’t liable under the TDR scheme because there has to be a billing arrangement between the provider and the end user. Although the companies do belong to the scheme and contribute info and advice to the Retail Service Providers, they aren’t liable to the end-users. As it happens, the NZ Herald has an article canvassing complaints about Chorus today. But whether wholesale providers should be liable under the TDR is just one of many issues that need reviewing, Here are four more:

Make the scheme compulsory for telcos operating in the NZ market– only 19 ‘telcos’ are listed as members of the scheme and of those 9 are sub-brands or MVNOs  (Mobile Virtual Network Owners).

Simplify the resolution process – assuming your telco is a member of the TDR scheme, you have to first complain to your telco, then you have to wait six weeks before you can complain to the TDR and go through a resolution process. There’s a flow chart on how it works on the TDR website, but it all looks very long, complicated and annoying.

Telcos need to promote the scheme – according to the latest TDR annual report  it received 1938 complaints in a year. This was up on the year before, and the Chairman’s report notes the increase may be down to increased awareness through promotional activity, including presentations to a few Citizens Advice Bureaus and some Google Ad Words

A more effective promotional tool is for the TDR logo to be displayed prominently on the telcos’ websites. I looked up the websites of 10 brands (all members of the scheme) and didn’t see it on any home pages.  Or they could put the TDR logo on the bill – but according to the Chairman’s Report: “Consumer representatives on the Council continue to promote the work of the scheme on all telecommunication customers’ invoices. So far there has not been universal agreement by the companies for the idea.” Really?

Rank the companies to show who has the most/least number of complaints – nothing like being ranked to sharpen your game – just ask every high school in the country following NCEA results! But according to this Stuff article the TCF won’t allow it.

Back to page 94/95 of the Telco Act Review paper. It notes that there is a dormant clause in the current Telco Act which, if activated by the Minister for Communications, would mean a consumer complaints adjudicator could be appointed and a levy imposed on the industry to pay for it. TUANZ has raised the issue in a release last week:

“TUANZ has been arguing strongly for significantly stronger consumer disputes processes under the current mandatory code regime. However, the options released today leave this important function with the TCF. There may be no choice but to push for the alternative option of an independent dispute and complaint model to ensure that management of disputes is user-friendly, and focused on their rights.”

Let’s hope a review of the TDR gets underway, and preferably before 2020 when the new regulatory framework is introduced.

UPDATE: I spoke about this topic on Radio NZ’s Nine to Noon show – podcast here.

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