With Sharon Claydon MP, Federal Member for Newcastle. 

SUBJECT: Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Complaints Report

SHARON CLAYDON, FEDERAL MEMBER FOR NEWCASTLE: It’s a great day to be welcoming Michelle Rowland to Newcastle. It’s an important day because we’ve got the report from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman that really highlights some of the major issues we are experiencing here in Newcastle.  Michelle and I have had the opportunity to meet with Nova for Women and Children service here in Newcastle because my office has been working with Nova for more than ten months now, trying to resolve issues that have led to enormous levels of frustration. This is a service that provides crisis accommodation and support to women and children in extreme need, many of whom are fleeing violent relationships. Being without a telecommunications service is really unforgivable for places like this. The lived experience of Nova is magnified around the country. That is unacceptable and I really appreciate Michelle taking the time to be here in Newcastle to hear firsthand about those experiences and to talk to us today about the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman Report. Handing over to you Michelle.

MICHELLE ROWLAND, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Thanks Sharon and thanks very much to Nova for making the time to discuss the real-world issues that they’ve been having as a consumer of broadband and telco services. It really does serve, as Sharon said, to highlight how important it is to focus on the lived experiences of consumers and to make these better.

The Minister for Communications said last year that 2017 would be the year of the customer. As is plain from the result that is in the TIOs report, it has become the year of the customer complaint. Complaints to the TIO about the NBN have surged over 200 per cent. This is simply not acceptable. This is, by all accounts, a national embarrassment and consumers deserve better. We also see and it is very telling that the single highest category of complaints about the NBN is entitled ‘Provider Response’ – that is, the response that consumers receive when they make a complaint is not satisfactory. And in most cases, this is about the lack of accountability. It is about blame shifting between retailers and the NBN, and backwards and forwards go the consumers with no resolution. This simply cannot go on. Consumers understand that often there will be problems. But they also expect there will be accountability. And for our part we expect that this Government should be more than reactive on these issues. We expect that this government should understand the real-world, lived experience of consumers. It is simply unacceptable that in 2018 we have such high levels of consumer complaints about the NBN which is supposed to be delivering economic and social benefits for all Australians.

JOURNALIST: A 200 per cent increase – do you feel like the Government’s not listening to the consumers then? 

ROWLAND: It would appear that this Government is in many cases, focused on spin and focused on the media cycle. That simply has to end. Otherwise we’re not going to see what should be a reduction in complaints. So we would urge the government to be more proactive in terms of focusing on the consumer, not just saying that they are focused on the consumer. And I’ll tell you this, and Sharon will back me up on this. You know, time and again when we ask questions in the Parliament about the NBN, the Government responds either with spin, or a non-response or starts talking about statistics. Well, people aren’t just statistics. These are real-world experiences that people are having and they need to be fixed. 

JOURNALIST: One of the things that the watchdog did say this morning was that increase could be, in part, due to the fact that more people were connecting to the NBN. What’s your response on that? 

ROWLAND: If you look at the last round of the TIO report, the levels of complaints have actually overtaken the number of activations so that simplistic argument simply doesn’t hold.  And again, I think that this Government needs to focus on not the spin and the excuses but really focus on fixing the situation. 

JOURNALIST: And what real world solutions should there be? Are we talking compensation for people who are suffering? What are the solutions here?

ROWLAND: Well Labor has been firstly very focused on the consumer – the consumer needs to be at the centre. Second, they expect accountability. And I note that the Government is saying that they’re going to look into a variety of consumer protection angles. And one of them clearly includes having some proper service levels. Now Labor’s been calling for meaningful service levels for months now when it became quite apparent that this was one of the key causes of complaints. So the Government needs to take more of a leadership-over-spin role here. And, as I said, also people expect that sometimes things will go wrong. But it is the lack of accountability – no-one agreeing to be the one to say ‘Look, the buck stops here’ that is really frustrating consumers.

JOURNALIST: And you have been around Nova today to hear what their issues are. What were your thoughts on their situation? 

ROWLAND: Completely unacceptable. It is so unfortunate that this is essentially an emergency service in this local area. And by all accounts from Nova, not only was this an issue of buck passing between retailers, it then became buck passing between retailers and the NBN. So this was taking something like ten months from the time it was initiated in the first place. And the impact that it had on staff, the impact they feel this has had on their very good reputation, again is something that is very difficult to remediate. And we should not have a situation where important people in the community, like this organisation, are forced into a situation where they feel they have been left so helpless. 

JOURNALIST: Should there be a sort of fast track for these organisations, and emergency organisations who are struggling with the NBN over regular consumers? 

ROWLAND: That is a very good point to make, because small businesses for example, do make up not an insignificant proportion of complaints but it’s by and large consumers – people who fall into that consumer category who are complaining. But I don’t see a particular category for organisations like Nova, whether they would be classified as a small business. Obviously they’re not for profit, but they’re not an ordinary consumer. I think that an examination of appropriate service levels should take into account these type of factors. Again, we haven’t heard the Government say anything on this point and it is very disappointing that it takes situations like this for these issues to start getting the airplay that it deserves. 

JOURNALIST: (To Kelly Hanson) What’s your experience been with the NBN. 

KELLY HANSON, CEO OF NOVA:  It’s been horrific, but it’s been horrific to begin with from providers because we had decided to move providers because where some of our sites are one provider was able to provide better access to mobile service.  So we had decided to do that. And then there was this constant battle between providers, giving us the wrong information I guess, or misleading us, and then with NBN there was a lack of communication and so what had occurred for us is that we actually went without phone and internet for 15 days. That meant women who were escaping domestic violence couldn’t ring us. We weren’t able to do referrals. We weren’t able to get our referrals. It just was at a standstill and it worried us, because we get our referrals every single day. We have a lot of phone calls. 

JOURNALIST: What do you do in that situation where you have no phones, you’ve got no internet, you rely on this service. Do people come in to the front door if they know where you are or are they just without help? 

KELLY HANSON, CEO OF NOVA:  They can come to the front door but sometimes they can’t get in here. It’s usually a referral, an intake from either a service or that woman and then we start to assist. We already put things in place through that phone call. I mean what we did was tear our hair out, continually.

I guess the other thing I wanted to say is that we’re battling systems already. There’s not enough houses. Women are living in poverty. Women are escaping domestic violence. And some women are battling the system of telecoms. So that made our stress levels go up even more. We also have a reputation to keep. And I guess the other thing to say is, we all felt worried about the women that couldn’t reach us.

JOURNALIST: And your NBN, the issue has been sorted out?

KELLY HANSON, CEO OF NOVA:  Yes, we’ve finally been told today that the last issue has been sorted – it’s not so much an NBN issue but we’ve actually had to have our intake line diverted to a mobile for the past ten months and two days.