Have you ever heard of the Telco Dispute service?

How many of you have heard of the Telco Dispute Resolution service?

I can tell you, it’s 13% of you (since I prompted you). If you were unprompted, the number is closer to 2%.

In short, nobody knows the service exists, which is really quite hopeless because without it you’d be completely at the mercy of telco billing systems, faulty call centre records and the like.

TUANZ doesn’t recommend ISPs to members when they call. We have no preference for providers and don’t hand out ratings for various ISPs – what we do every time we’re asked is tell customers only to sign up with those ISPs that are part of the scheme, because that way if there is a dispute you’re assured of having an independent third party deal with the problem.

TUANZ believes very strongly that any ISP worth the S in its name should belong. The cost for smaller ISPs is $500 a year, so that shouldn't be a problem for any provider.

There is no requirement for ISPs or telcos to join the scheme. It’s entirely voluntary and entirely paid for by the telcos that belong. When it’s used it works well, but last year according to the TDR annual report it received only 3,000 calls and of those just under half were accepted as complaints or “enquiries” as they’re known.

Compare that with the Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman scheme which (between July and September last year) generated nearly 38,000 complaints (a major drop from the year before). That’s for one quarter – for the full year it’s closer to 150,000 complaints.

There are many reasons for the difference of course. The Australian TIO model encourages complaints rather than resolutions (each key word uttered by a customer calling to complain becomes a separate complaint, I’m told), complaints to the TDR can only be accepted once a deadlock with the telco has been reached and naturally we could cast aspersions about the Australian ability to whinge. But when all is said and done the Aussie customer knows about the scheme whereas the New Zealand customer – for the most part - does not.

The Australian scheme is mandatory, is governed by its own Act and costs A$30 million a year to run. The New Zealand scheme is voluntary, governed by the Telco Carriers Forum (although it has its own Council, which TUANZ sits on) and costs far, far less. I can’t find a public document that includes costs so won’t reveal them here, but it’s described by the Chair of the Council as costing “the least, by a very big margin, of all industry based consumer dispute resolution schemes” in New Zealand.

By and large, New Zealand telcos do a far better job than their Aussie counterparts of sorting out disputes. I receive a number of calls from disgruntled customers and refer most of them on to the ISP in question, where they are resolved relatively quickly. The TDR does the same – referring customers back to their providers when a deadlock has yet to be reached. Often customers will complain to the TDR before talking to their telco and they are politely but firmly sent on to do the right thing.

Most of New Zealand’s customers are covered by the scheme as they buy service from the larger ISPs and telcos. The problem telcos tend to be the smaller operators and they tend not to belong. In essence, we’re policing the wrong crowd.

The previous Minister of Communications, Steven Joyce, indicated to the TCF that if it didn’t get complete voluntary membership then he’d have to take a look at regulating the issue and requiring all telcos join a scheme – a scheme, he promised, that would be costly and onerous and make the real estate agent scheme look like kindergarten.

I don’t think we’re at that point. We have a very workable scheme and now we need to ensure all ISPs belong to it. Besides, let’s remember the industry we’re dealing with – any cost they incur will be borne by users at the end of the day.

TUANZ is working with the TDR to encourage full participation and we’ll be writing to non-scheme members asking them to sign up. We're also encouraging the telcos to put more information on their websites and on their bills (TelstraClear customers already have this - hopefully it will spread to Vodafone bills shortly and every bill should have the information on it somewhere). I'd like to see some of those banner ads display TDR information on a regular basis, much in the same way the TV channels all carry ads about the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

You can help as well. Check on the TDR website and if your ISP isn’t a member let them know that it’s not acceptable. Write them an email or give them a call and if the answer isn’t satisfactory, vote with your wallet. It’s vital all customers have access to this kind of service, especially when they are customers of an ISP that doesn’t seem to see the value in service.