Network outages: What are your rights?

Alex Kidman 3 February 2017

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When mobile networks go down, what compensation can you expect?

Yesterday, Telstra suffered a wide scale network disruption as the result of a fire at its exchange in Chatswood NSW. Customers were left with patchy service, including dropped calls and, in some cases, text messages that were sent to incorrect phones.

It's far from the first instance of a mobile network suffering outages, although it was our first outage for 2017. Last year was rife with them. Vodafone was hit with an outage, as was Optus subsidiary Virgin Mobile while Telstra suffered multiple outage incidents over the course of the year.

In 2016, telcos tended to respond to outage incidents by offering free data to their customers. With the 2017 incident, Telstra has publicly apologised but offered no statement around what kind of recompense it will offer to affected customers. To be fair, an exchange fire isn’t precisely the kind of thing that any telco plans on having.

Still, it’s easy to imagine circumstances under which you might have been seriously impacted by a lack of mobile service that go beyond simply not being able to register your outrage at the lack of mobile service on your favoured social media platform.

The issue is that when services go down, the carrier contracts don’t really allow for much consumer redress. Every carrier’s standard form of agreement notes that mobile services may not always be available, and that this is part of the nature of provision of such services. They may contain some kind of compensatory language, but even there you’d be lucky to see payment.

For example, Telstra’s Customer Terms for consumers specifies that it expects to "restore our mobile services within the following timeframes of being told about a fault:
(a) in urban areas, within two working days;
(b) in rural areas, within three working days; and
(c) in isolated areas, within four working days.
After you tell us about a fault we aim to contact you every 48 hours with progress of the restoration until the mobile services are restored.
"

Telstra’s mobile services were restored on the same day they suffered a fault which is quite comfortably within that two-day window for mobile service faults.

Telstra’s terms and conditions cannot trump Australian consumer law, but even if you were to complain under a loss of service or value scenario, the amounts you might be able to claim back might not be that large in any case.

To take Telstra as an example, if you were a customer on its Go Mobile Plus L plan, your basic plan cost (excluding handset price) is $95 per month. On an hourly basis, that equates to around 13c per hour of access time, which means that for the 3 to 6 hours that Telstra’s network was disrupted yesterday, you might be able to claim for a maximum of around 78c of missed coverage. That hardly seems worth the time and trouble to claim.

Does that mean that you should just throw your hands up in the air and presume that we’re all screwed once we signed on the dotted line? Not quite.

If you’re in the situation where yesterday’s outage, or indeed any future outage, is just the latest in a very long line of issues with a telco’s reception in your area, you may have grounds to walk away from your existing phone contract.

The trick there is to keep a detailed diary of any outage issues, as well as the steps taken to resolve it. You’ll need to contact your telco to try to resolve any problems, but if they can’t satisfactorily resolve a complaint, you can take it to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) who can adjudicate on the matter. There’s plenty of history of consumers unable to get access over a longer period of time being allowed to walk away from contracts.

A single day, or an even shorter period, while supremely frustrating is unlikely to cut it, however.

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