Network outages: What are your rights?
When mobile networks go down, what compensation can you expect?
As I write this, Telstra is in the middle of a nationwide outage on its 4G network that has significantly disrupted both voice and data services for its customers.
This has, to borrow from the late great Mr Adams, made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
Not that Telstra would have wanted an outage, but then, there's something of a history of this kind of event. Telstra has previously suffered outages back in 2017 as the result of exchange fires, and 2016 saw numerous outages across all networks. In that year, Vodafone was hit with an outage, as was Optus subsidiary Virgin Mobile, while Telstra suffered multiple outage incidents over that 12-month period.
Typically speaking, telcos have offered recompense to their customers with free data, often on days when data usage might not have been all that heavy anyway. With the advent of "unlimited" data plans, that's a peace offering that might not seem to have the same value to you as it did some years ago.
So you'd be ready for some serious cash compensation, right?
Not so fast.
While it is very easy to imagine circumstances under which you might be 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, that doesn't mean you're automatically entitled to compensation.
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 specify 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."
At the time of writing, Telstra's services are still impacted in some areas while working in others, but given that the issues appeared to kick in around 10am this morning, that still gives Telstra until Wednesday morning to get its house in order.
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 $99 per month. On an hourly basis, that equates to around 13 cents per hour of access time. Telstra says that its service is "improving nationally", which could mean that if you have service now, you were hit with around 3 hours of missed access time.
That would equate to around 39 cents worth 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 outages affect you, and especially if you've been hit with multiple outages that particularly affect your ability to use a service, you may have grounds to walk away from your existing phone contract.
The trick 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.
However, a single day, or an even shorter period, while supremely frustrating is unlikely to cut it.