How The New ACMA Rules Should End Mobile Bill Shock

From next February, mobile providers won’t be able to easily charge you thousands of dollars extra if you exceed your monthly-cap. We explain how the new rules will help, and where you’ll still need to help yourself.

Picture by Cory Doctorow

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) yesterday released the final version of its Reconnecting the Customer report, and made six key recommendations for how phone companies should change their behaviour. If the industry doesn’t implement those recommendations by next February, the regulations will be legislated.

In practical terms, mobile companies would much rather run their own system of regulation than have one completely imposed on them, so the odds are good that those rules will be incorporated into the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code (TCP) before the February deadline.

The key changes that ACMA wants to see introduced include:

  • For all cap plans, the cost of making a two-minute call to another mobile (based on the highest possible cost), sending a text message and downloading 1MB of data need to be clearly stated. The provider should also state how many two-minute domestic mobile calls could be made on a typical plan. (If plans include a component that can be used for either calls or text, the number of two-minute calls that could be made if no text value was used should also be disclosed.) The aim here is to eliminate confusing “cap plan” pricing, which makes claims such as “$500 of calls for $50” but doesn’t disclose what $500 of calls actually means or what you’ll pay when that money runs out. Explaining that in terms of a number of 2-minute calls is a much clearer measure.
  • Basic terms of the contract — including call rates, termination fees, contract lengths, and exclusions — must be disclosed. Providers must also provide detailed information on cooling-off periods, customer service options and the fact that the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) can be contacted if there’s a dispute that isn’t resolved.
  • On cap plans, SMS alerts must be provided when customers get near their monthly spending limit (something we’ve already seen with Optus, for instance). A notification must be provided at 95% usage, and ACMA suggest warnings at 50% and 80% as well.
  • To stop telcos whining and saying “SMS notifications are too hard to develop”, any company that doesn’t have that system in place by February will be restricted to charging no more than half of a total monthly cap as excess fees. In other words, if you’re on a $79 cap, the maximum extra charge that could be imposed would be $39.50 — even if you used far more data. In practice, I expect every contract provider will develop a notification system precisely to avoid that scenario.
  • Publishing metrics which measure how quickly customer service issues are dealt with. We already see some of this data through the TIO, but that only deals with worst-case scenarios.

We’re looking forward to seeing those changes happen, and we’ll include some of that data in our Planhacker listings going forward. It’s worth noting, though, that these changes don’t reduce the need for customers to investigate their own needs carefully and choose appropriately. I also suspect that many of these details, while published, will still be in extremely small print. But having them there should still be a step forward. What do you think.


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