Have you ever heard of the Telco Dispute service?

How many of you have heard of the Telco Dispute Resolution

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

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

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.