Why bill shock is now less of a problem for mobiles

Angus Kidman 21 December 2016

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The average "unexpectedly high bill" is now $150.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) yesterday issued a report examining the impact of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection (TCP) Code on consumer complaints. The TCP Code was introduced in 2012 to make sure customers clearly understood how much their phone and broadband services would cost, and what was included. Prior to this, plans would often boast about including $1,000 in "included value" but made it very hard to work out what that actually meant in practical terms. As such, the TCP Code was a welcome improvement.

One measure of its success has been a reduction in complaints about "unexpectedly high bills" (UHBs), otherwise known as bill shock. In 2013, 33% of customers had received a bigger-than-expected bill. In 2016, that figure has dropped to 19%. In 2013, the median UHB was $160; that has dropped to $150.

I'm sure that some of that improvement is due to the enhancements which the TCP Code mandates, such as detailed critical information summaries (CIS) for all plans and automatic SMS notifications that warn you that you've used most of your allowance. But the biggest difference has nothing to do with that: it's the fact that the vast majority of plans these days (whether postpaid or prepaid) include unlimited calls and texts to Australian numbers. It's much harder to go over the limit when there isn't any limit.

The one big area of risk is data. We haven't yet seen an unlimited data mobile plan in Australia, and it will be years (if ever) before that happens. Excess data fees are big business, accounting for some $146 million into telco coffers each year. That might help explain why the average bill size has actually gone up from $70 to $85, despite the rise in unlimited call plans.

It doesn't pay to be complacent here; 15% of complaints about excessive bills came about because people thought they were using their home Wi-Fi and they were instead using their mobile data. So make sure you always check before you start bingeing on Netflix through your phone.

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears Monday through Friday on finder.com.au.

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