The Australian Communications and Media Authority has reminded telcos to better support their most vulnerable customers.
Its release today of its expecations of telecommunications providers follows a spate of findings showing industry-wide practices have negatively impacted disadvantaged customers.
The media and telco watchdog said in a statement that the expectations were not “a compliance and enforcement tool”, but guidelines on how the sector can meet The Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code (TCP).
The TCP, first introduced in 2012, was revised in 2019 to include specific obligations to protect vulnerable consumers, such as ensuring that “sales representatives and staff who interact with consumers are able to interact with disadvantaged or vulnerable consumers appropriately.”
ACMA said that examples of vulnerable consumers included customers impacted by natural disasters, serious illness, domestic violence, financial hardship and the impacts of covid.
“There have been indications that practices by some telcos have disadvantaged consumers, particularly those who are vulnerable.”
In April 2021, Financial Counselling Australia released a report based on interviews with 228 financial counsellors, who reported that between one-third to more than half of their clients were struggling with telecommunications debt.
In November 2020, the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network reported that poor sales practices by telcos had led to systemic debt for First Australian telecommunications consumers in regional and remote communities.
According to a report by the Consumer Policy Research Centre between May and October 2021 43 percent of telco consumers with a disability reported having a negative experience.
Australian telcos have already taken some steps to better support disabled users. For example, in 2013 Optus partnered with not-for-profit MVNO Jeenee Mobile, a division of Community Connections Australia to launch a range of mobile plans backed up by a support network for disabled people and their families.
This included a service designed to combat bill shock by turning off access to data once the user hits their limit. The feature is pre-set with permission from the user and their family.
ACMA included four general expectations for supporting vulnerable consumers and a number of practical suggestions for meeting them.
Expectations included that telcos “treat all consumers fairly and reasonably so that consumers are less likely to experience vulnerability and harm when accessing and maintaining communications services.
“Be proactive in identifying and responding to consumers in vulnerable circumstances.
“Have better-practice policies and processes in place to assist consumers in vulnerable circumstances to gain and maintain access to telecommunications services that meet their needs and circumstances.
“Include supporting consumers experiencing vulnerability in their business strategy/planning.”
The agency’s practical instructions for protecting vulnerable consumers included suggestions such as training support staff and sales representatives to better identify signs that consumers are vulnerable or disadvantaged.
“While there are many legitimate reasons for both, multiple contracts under one name, or the account-holder not being the end-user, can be an indicator of financial abuse.”
ACMA also recommended using “automated assisted-decision-making software (with appropriate human oversight) to help identify consumers experiencing vulnerability” and “incorporating ‘inclusive by design’ principles into the development of new products.”
“Make websites and smartphone apps compliant with the latest web content accessibility guidelines published by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium.”