On 1 September 2012, the new Telecommunications Consumer Protections (TCP) Code registered by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) came into force.  This Code regulates telecommunications providers and the way they communicate their different phone plans, and will be phased in over twelve months to allow providers to upgrade their systems.

The new code follows an extensive review of the previous code commenced in 2010 by the Communications Alliance, and incorporates over 95% of the recommendations contained in ACMA’s Reconnecting the Customer report.

The changes to the code are designed to try and prevent consumers suffering from expensive bill shock, provide assistance to customers who are in hardship or dealing with an unexpectedly high bill, and provide some clarity when consumers are comparing phone plans.  Particularly flowing from the Reconnecting the Customer report, the new code introduces detailed and streamlined complaints-handling rules including tighter time frames and a new compliance body.

With increasing availability of 4G/LTE (Long Term Evolution) networks and new Smartphone technology such as iPhone 5, the risk of data overuse and bill shock is increasing with the faster internet and downloads associated with the new networks.  Overseas research suggests that data usage could increase by 50%, or even double in some cases, with the use of 4G/LTE.

Key protections under the new code include:

  • Limiting of confusing advertising terms with immediate effect, for example use of the word ‘cap’ to be limited to a hard cap which cannot be exceeded;
  • Mandatory unit pricing to be provided in advertisements giving pricing for national calls, standard SMS and downloading 1MB of data, from 27 October 2012;
  • Introduction of a two-page “Critical Information Summary” document for customers buying a new service from March 2013 which will provide information about pricing, complaints, and volumetric information (for example how many two-minute calls can be made under the plan);
  • New complaints handling rules with immediate effect which require a proposed resolution within 15 working days and unique reference numbers to allow for tracking of complaints;
  • Spend alerts will be phased in from September 2013 for large providers and September 2014 for smaller providers, and will be provided to consumers with included value plans at 50%, 85% and 100% of allowed usage;
  • Access to current and historical billing and usage records; and
  • Introduction of a new body, Communications Compliance, from March 2013 which is a self-regulatory industry body to improve members’ compliance with code rules.

Under the code and the Telecommunications Act 1997 (Cth) ACMA can enforce the new code by issuing infringement notices, accepting enforceable undertakings and seeking civil penalties of up to $250,000 in the Federal Court.

Individual consumers are advised to complain to their providers in the first instance, but can also complain to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman if they are dissatisfied with their providers’ handling of the complaint.