TIO reform paper targets ombudsman's complaints process, customer awareness and jurisdiction

Discussion paper focuses on funding, customer awareness and telco accountability

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) Web site.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) Web site.

A discussion paper has been released by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, calling for submissions on the effectiveness of the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman's role in dispute resolutions between telcos and their customers.

The discussion paper asks for individuals and organisations to share their opinions on several aspects of the TIO's performance. The ombudsman's structure and telco-sourced funding model, its jurisdiction, its advertising of its services and its efficiency in dealing with complaints are all up for debate.

Questions proposed by the discussion paper include where the TIO's administration costs should be sourced from — at the moment, all costs and overheads are recouped from its members, which include telcos like Telstra and Optus, and Internet service providers like iiNet and Internode. Similarly, the paper prompts respondents on whether the TIO's structure should be altered to allow more independence from the telecommunications community. Current ASIC regulatory guidelines state that organisations like the TIO must be independent of the industries they operate within. However, the paper notes concerns raised about the ombudsman's ability to best serve the interests of consumers when all its funding comes from the telecommunications industry.

Accessibility is a key point of the TIO discussion paper. The poor level of awareness of the service to minority groups — such as people with disabilities, under-25s, and rural and regional residents — is regularly assessed by the TIO, but the recognition from the general public is earmarked as an important area for development. The discussion paper notes that very few complainants to the TIO were made aware of the service by telcos or ISPs — a 'disturbingly low' amount, according to the TIO's 2005-06 annual report. TIO members are not currently required to make consumers aware of the scheme, and the discussion paper raises the question of whether this process should be made mandatory.

The question of possible additional discretionary powers for the TIO is raised, and the enforcement of decisions is also proposed for debate. The TIO is currently able to issue binding directions to its members up to a value of $30,000, and non-binding recommendations up to $85,000. While the discussion paper doesn't quote the number of complaints investigated by the TIO, it does note that in 2009-10 only 37 warnings were issued to members. 18 of these 'preliminary views' were unresolved by members and were issued as binding decisions by the TIO, but 13 were still not complied with. The discussion paper calls for opinions on the current effectiveness of the TIO in enforcing its decisions against members, including through the possible use of the ACMA in issuing infringement notices.

Other areas of investigation include the fairness of the TIO's rulings, with an emphasis upon consumer satisfaction, and the future jurisdiction of the TIO with regards to future technological developments like the National Broadband Network. The paper also considers the possible inclusion of pay TV services and bundled telecommunications packages under the purview of the TIO.

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Tags Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO)Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)

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Campbell Simpson

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PC World
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