The Australian Communications and Media Authority will launch a formal inquiry into complaints handling processes within telcos and ISPs as part of a broad new customer-focused strategy outlined today.
The regulator will also turn the spotlight onto itself to resolve what acting chairman Chris Chapman called a "regulatory soup" that he did not believe was the "best solution for [addressing] some of the bigger issues" in the telecommunications sector.
Chapman believed the sector's generally poor responsiveness when it came to complaint handling was "legendary".
"We want to get to the heart of tensions between service providers and customers," he said, launching the formal inquiry.
"The inquiry will look at good customer relationship management and attempt to plot pressure points in the interaction between customers and providers. In particular, we want to shine a light on complaints handling and we want to establish an analytics framework and metrics so that the vexed issue... can be resolved."
The inquiry will also consider the potential role of existing regulation frameworks and "whether more direct regulation of complaint handling is necessary" - for example, by creating new standards that service providers must adhere to.
ACMA has the backing of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy.
Conroy told delegates at the Commsday event that he intended "to amend the Telecommunications Act, to give the Minister the authority to direct ACMA to develop an industry standard, where the Minister considers it appropriate to do so."
"Unlike a consumer code, a consumer protection standard will be developed by the regulator, who will need to balance the interests of consumers with those of the industry," Conroy said.
"It will be directly enforceable by the ACMA and therefore, it will be a more powerful and flexible instrument.
"Failure to comply with an industry standard would be subject to civil penalty provisions. Corporations will be subject to penalties of up to $250,000 and individuals to penalties of up $50,000 for each contravention."
Conroy also revealed intentions to amend the Act to allow codes "to be varied rather than replaced in their entirety."
"The industry code development process is cumbersome and inflexible because there is currently no way that a code can be varied – even for minor or urgent changes," he said.
"I will amend the Act to allow for Codes to be varied... This will make codes more flexible and responsive to consumer concerns."
Other ACMA plans
ACMA's formal inquiry falls under the banner of a new approach dubbed "reconnect the customer".
It was formed partially to address ongoing issues in the sector around complaints handling and also to set a future framework "to determine how consumers can be satisfied in a more ubiquitous NBN arrangement."
Chapman said he would "personally" brief the chiefs of larger service providers and seek their input on "enforceable strategies" to lower the number of complaints referred to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO).
The ACMA would also seek to provide input into the Communications Alliance's telecommunications consumer protection code, targeting areas it believed "require remedy".
Chapman also said the ACMA would work with the ACCC, Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), and advisory bodies such as the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Australian Telecommunications User Group (ATUG) in an attempt to streamline some of the "regulatory soup" arrangements in place today.
Chapman said today was about "nailing ACMA's colours to the mast. We're [no longer] waiting for anyone," he said. "And we invite you to join us [to resolve these issues]."
Telstra to cooperate
Telstra's director of customer service and satisfaction, Jules Scarlett, said Telstra would "work constructively with the ACMA on this inquiry".
"Customer issues will always be most effectively and quickly addressed by telecoms providers dealing directly with their customers," Scarlett said.