Mobile phone service providers are failing to provide adequate coverage and are selling consumers products they cannot use, according to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman.
- The ombudsman received 63,000 complaints about mobile phones in two years
- People have been left without phone coverage during emergencies
- Help services operated by online bots and automation don’t suit all customers
A report released on Wednesday shows the ombudsman’s office received 63,000 complaints about mobile phones from July 2020 to March 2022.
It details examples of people who became stuck without mobile phone service in an emergency.
“People go in with an idea of what they think they want and they’re being sold products they may not want, need or understand,” Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Cynthia Gebert said.
Some people living in high-risk emergency areas told the ombudsman they had lost all communication lines during emergencies and struggled to have phone service restored.
“During our community outreach events, 10 consumers living in rural areas told us there were extensive delays restoring their mobile service following a natural disaster,” the ombudsman’s report states.
“Some consumers said that even after these delays, their service was less reliable than before the disaster.”
The report shows use of phones has changed in the past decade.
People now use smartphones for banking, two-factor authentication, doctor’s appointments, directions and emergency warnings.
Ms Gebert said it meant reliable access to the network was more important than ever.
“It moves from a sense of helplessness which some people feel when they don’t have it on an everyday basis to a question of life and death when we’re in a natural disaster situation,” she said.
The report found people living in areas of no service were sold plans contracted to providers with no coverage in their areas.
“It has the possibility to affect particularly the most vulnerable in quite a significant way,” Ms Gebert said.
Between 2020 and 2022, the ombudsman received 5,811 complaints of poor phone coverage.
Ms Gebert said people should question new products marketed to them and providers needed to pay more attention.
She said to ask about coverage maps and whether or not a customer would get service.
“We’ve got examples of customers who might come in from regional and rural settings into metro settings and the service they’re being sold won’t work at home … that is not OK,” she said.
“Are you actually going to get the coverage consistently if you’re moving around your farm and if it’s not what you thought you were getting, talk to your telco.”
The report states low-cost smaller telcos often provide very limited access to customer service agents over the phone.
It’s recommendations include making it easier to talk to a “real person” on the phone rather than an online robot, more honest sales pitches and payment methods better suited to individuals.
“We really want the telco industry to really listen and stand up to hear what their customers want and need,” Ms Gebert said.
She urged people unable to reasonably resolve disputes to contact her office.
“There are obligations to refer to us when certain complaints can’t get resolved, I’m not seeing a rush on people being referred to us by providers,” Ms Gebert said.
Customer Marc Chick said he lived just outside Wangaratta — a regional centre with a population of 30,000.
He said he had a smartphone designed to operate on the 4G network but had to lock it onto the 3G network because 4G did not work where he lived and worked.
He said his phone signal came from Beechworth, 40 kilometres away, despite there being a tower 8 kilometres from his home.
He has rigged up an antenna using an old 3G internet dongle to operate his mobile phone at his workshop.
“It’s that bloody unreliable,” Mr Chick said.
“When I’m in the workshop I’ve actually got the phone hooked up to the antenna.”
Phone lines cut during fires
Far East Gippsland resident Brett Davies said there was no mobile phone coverage where he lived and he communicated with the outside world via satellite landline and internet.
Mr Davies said he currently couldn’t leave his home because a landslip had blocked his road to East Gippsland.
He said he had previously been without a landline for three months when all lines were burnt in the Black Summer bushfires.
Telstra has since installed a solar battery operated satellite tower on his neighbour’s property.
Mr Davies said he was using a satellite landline phone.
“It works most of the time,” Mr Davies said.
Optus managing director of customer service, Maurice McCarthy, said Optus was “raising the bar” in its customer service.
“We continually listen to our customers and work to resolve their queries, simply and efficiently,” Mr McCarthy said.
Telstra challenges findings
However, Telstra said in the nine months to March 2022 the telco had received fewer complaints overall.
“This [ombudsman’s] report covers an extraordinary period of time [July 2020 to March 2022] during which Covid-19 and extreme weather conditions challenged us to take action and support those customers facing financial hardship more than ever before,” a Telstra spokesperson said.
Telstra said complaints to the ombudsman about its services had almost halved in the 2021/22 financial year and complaints about mobile phones and coverage had dropped by a quarter.
The company said in the past two years it had changed credit assessment processes to check whether people could afford products prior to selling, introduced up-front plans and scrapped excess data charges.