Network outages: What are your rights?

Alex Kidman 29 September 2016

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When mobile networks go down, what can you do in terms of redress?

Over the last weekend, Vodafone suffered an outage on its 4G network that saw a large number of its customers take to social media to complain about missed calls, texts and a lack of data service, presuming they had some other avenue to do so. Complain they did, and Vodafone issued an apology and explanation for the outage, blaming a faulty 4G router, as well as offering its customers 2GB of free data by way of apology.

2GB of free data is nothing to sniff at, but it’s easy to imagine circumstances under which you might have been seriously impacted by a lack of mobile service that go a fair way beyond simply not being able to register your outrage at the lack of mobile service on your favoured social media platform. Vodafone is far from alone in the 2016 outages game, with Virgin Mobile suffering a single outage incidence earlier in the year and Telstra notably having a number of outages earlier in the year.

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 standard form of agreement allows for a one-off $40 payment, but only "if you reasonably believe we haven’t met our connection timeframes, or responded to a billing enquiry or a network problem within a set timeframe". A single day out of a month, or even two in a year isn’t likely to meet Telstra’s $40 payment threshold. Or in other words, take the free data and don’t complain, because you don’t have much in the way of grounds for actual redress.

Technically, were you to complain under general Australian consumer law, the amounts involved in a refund scenario might not be that significant anyway. Take Vodafone’s recent outage, which lasted around 5 hours. On a $100/month contract, every hour of access time is worth around 14c, which means that technically speaking those 5 hours are only worth 70c in access terms. The time it would take to get the refund wouldn't be worth the 70 cents.

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 a single 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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