Australia’s telecommunications providers have “coped well” this year despite a “perfect storm” of disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) has concluded in its latest analysis of consumer complaints.

The volume of complaints, the agency found in its newly released July 2020 Systemic Investigation Report, tracked the global escalation of concern as the coronavirus pandemic exploded.

Greater reliance on phone and telecommunications services frustrated many consumers as they tried to upgrade broadband plans, or realised through intensive use just how poor the mobile reception was at their new home offices.

“The pandemic has thrown the telecommunications industry and its consumers into a perfect storm,” telecommunications ombudsman Judi Jones said in launching the report.

“Delivery of reliable phone and internet services was challenged [and] collided with our need to remain connected... at a time of heightened uncertainty.”

Disruption at home and away

As early as mid-March, the pandemic caused widespread disruption as the transition to work-from-home (WFH) arrangements, and the closure of overseas contact centres due to local lockdowns, blew out on-hold times.

The TIO reported a sharp rise in complaints just days after the Australian government activated its pandemic emergency plan – just before the World Health Organization’s 11 March formal pandemic declaration.

Australian providers’ heavy reliance on overseas contact centres meant many customers simply couldn’t contact their service providers – often trying phone, chat, and online options before lodging a complaint with the TIO.

Service providers scrambled to compensate: services firm Datto, for one, went to market for 2,000 domestic contact-centre staff while Telstra created 1,000 onshore contact-centre jobs – which attracted over 19,000 applicants from a job-starved Australian economy.

More recently, Telstra committed to having Australian contact-centre staff answering all inbound calls from 2022.

Increased onshoring of customer-service jobs proves that overseas call centres “are detrimental to Australia’s telecoms industry and the people it is supposed to serve,” Macquarie Telecom group executive Luke Clifton said in responding to the report.

“Australian telcos have a responsibility now to reach into long Centrelink queues to employ people here who desperately need a job,” he said, “not underpaid and underappreciated staff overseas.”

Increased reliance spawns increased awareness

By mid-April – days after the government announced free childcare services designed to help working parents – complaints about uncontactable telcos began to decline, from a peak of around 135 cases per day to current averages of around 50.

The TIO analysis also identified two other common issues that were widely reported during the pandemic: fault and connection problems disrupting consumer experiences, and financial impacts on customers struggling with lost jobs, increased expenses, and major cuts to business revenues.

Fault and connection problems, which might have previously been ignored while customers were away at work or school, became points of contention as pressured Australians fought to stay connected to support new work-from-home and home-schooling arrangements.

The surge in average daily ‘faults and connections’ complaints was less dramatic – rising from around 275 daily complaints in early February to 350 per day in early April – but the TIO noted that even small delays to service or problem were causing big issues.

Small-business owners trying to transfer phone and Internet services reported losing connectivity for weeks – stressing businesses that had moved online to serve customers that were no longer coming through the door.

An adequate response

Ultimately, the TIO said, it was “satisfied the providers had adequately responded to our concerns” about issues such as technicians missing appointments, or service transfers being delayed due to internal staffing shortfalls.

Through ongoing collaboration with telecommunications providers, the TIO offered consumers advice and ensured that providers prioritised complaints about service connectivity and financial hardship from at-risk consumers.

Service providers had responded with efforts such as expanding self-service options, offering extra data or unlimited calls at no cost, and deferring debt-recovery processes to decrease pressure on cash-strapped customers.

Complaints about debt-management issues dropped sharply during March, only creeping back up towards pre-pandemic levels in June as sustained financial pressures began to bite.

NBN Co, for its part, had moved proactively in the face of surging usage – offering Internet providers 40 per cent more additional capacity at no charge, and launching a $150m relief fund – as surging home working, videoconferencing usage and streaming video caused bandwidth demand to explode over the past quarter.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, Jones said, “stress-tested the industry and government relief measures and stretched the capacity of telco providers.”

“It is encouraging to see the industry’s extension of the telecommunications hardship principles until the end of September and the steps providers have taken so far to respond to the financial impact on consumers.”