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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4201


Mrs HULL (5:57 PM) —I rise today to speak about the inquiry that was undertaken by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications. The Phoning home report was a significant report that inquired into international mobile roaming and examined the reasons why Australians pay so much for international mobile roaming. During the inquiry we found that many Australians simply had no idea as to the major obligations and costs that would be attributed to them when they were phoning home, so to speak.

Those of us who have travelled overseas will have no doubt about the utility of international mobile roaming, a service that allows you to use your own phone and phone number wherever you are in the world. Many of us also have stories of the shock of the mobile phone bill after travelling overseas. It can be absolutely frightening when you face an enormous bill after travelling internationally and using global roaming functions. No matter how careful you are in the lead-up to your trip and how careful you are in going through the issues with your service provider, there are so many intricate issues to deal with when it comes to mobile roaming. During the inquiry the committee was confronted with evidence of bills into the tens of thousands of dollars when people returned from their overseas trips having used international mobile roaming. The committee recognised that this is a very serious concern but also realised that it is a concern that does not affect everybody. However, when travelling internationally, with young children having their own mobile phones and everybody seeming to have an abundance of mobile telephony, it is wise for all people to understand the serious issues that affect them when they are using a mobile phone overseas.

One of the things that kept coming through in the evidence to the inquiry was that for the major players, the telcos, it does not really represent a big share of their revenue and that ensuring that consumers are reliably informed is not at the top of their list of things to do. Although there was universal agreement that this is an ugly area of telecommunications and that it can be frightfully expensive, of which many people are not aware, we learnt that there are many influences on that final bill that cannot be directly regulated or affected by our institutions and framework within Australia. The report recognised that not all of the factors associated with global roaming charges are within the influence of the telecommunications companies.

The committee found that the enormous cost of mobile roaming can be attributed to the technical nature of roaming—whereby, for example, the customer pays to receive calls—and to Australian telcos’ inability to negotiate favourable deals for their Australian consumers. To give a brief description of how this works, roaming charges and standard local calling arrangements are very complex. The complexity of roaming has an influence on the cost of roaming services. Of particular note is the fact that a traveller using roaming pays for both made and received calls. So, if you are overseas and using roaming, you actually pay for both receiving and making those calls. A traveller who receives a call but allows that call to go to voicemail, retrieves that message from voicemail and then returns the call is effectively paying for four international calls. This pricing arrangement is almost certainly responsible for a number of unexpectedly high bills. It is quite a complex arrangement.

I know that I was unaware of exactly how this process works. Many years ago when my children were overseas I would call them so that they did not have to bear the cost of the call. I would call my children, or friends and relatives when they were overseas, from my home number not realising that they were incurring significant costs for those calls. I am sure that most parents are unaware of this. They might have children overseas during gap years, as is the norm these days.

To improve the bargaining positions of Australian telcos, the committee has recommended a policy of regulating the framework for the wholesale cost of roaming through bilateral and multilateral negotiations with other countries, making sure that countries with the greatest number of Australian visitors are given priority. The committee also believes that competition can be enhanced within Australia. To do this, the committee wants temporary mobile number portability for roaming services to be implemented. This will allow consumers to choose the best roaming deal for their needs. The provision of information on roaming to customers can also be improved enormously. One recommendation among many made by the committee was that the Australian Communications and Media Authority facilitate a meeting with the Communications Alliance to discuss the development of a minimum standard for consumer information and awareness on roaming and potential costs, and that the Australian government explore opportunities to collaborate with the Australian Telecommunication Users Group ‘Roam Fair’ campaign.

There is a role for government in trying to put in place a framework that makes sure that charges at a wholesale level, which are generated offshore, are within some realistic parameters. That should be part of our diplomacy and advocacy when it comes to bilateral and multilateral activity. The committee heard horror stories from many people about how they were treated in various countries and the negotiations they had to undertake to find their way through a myriad of very complex issues.

The committee also recommends that, to ensure that travellers are aware of the alternatives to mobile roaming, these be incorporated into information in roaming provided by the Australian government. I believe the committee’s recommendations for the general public are practical and realistic. They start with a very basic call to consumers to be very alert, to avoid being very alarmed when you come home and realise that you have got the most significant bill, which you thought you controlled but which you definitely do not control. That comes from the fact that there are many charges that are paid to a visited network by the home network, irrespective of whether the home network recovers any fees from its customer. The home network operator therefore takes on many of those risks, but they are obviously passed on.

The committee heard evidence that the wholesale billing method can cause delays to the billing of international mobile roaming charges to the end user. Sometimes providers are unable to provide current balances of international roaming charges to their customers because of delays in receiving billing information from visited network providers. We heard that even people who rang up on a daily basis to check what their balance was and were given a balance could not be given a clear idea because those other costs had not been added to the equation. We heard many of those costs were delayed for maybe five to six months at a time. There was some discrepancy with that and some debate and argument about that between the companies. We certainly heard from users and their representatives that they did have major bills and they received those bills up to many months after they had returned home.

In its evidence, the ACCC determined that the mark-up component of roaming retail charges is not governed by any common set of principles, and that rather concerned me. They are saying that each home network operator is free to determine the size of the mark-up component of the retail price. I think it is relatively dangerous to not have a governing common set of principles in this. I think it was the ombudsman, who gave evidence in front our committee, who got caught out herself with additional charges when she was on a trip overseas and came back home. She is the woman of all knowledge, did everything right and ensured that she was well and truly covered, and on her return to Australia she found that she had a bill that she had not anticipated getting. Australians need to be very aware that this is a significant issue.

There can be no doubt that it will take time before Australians are offered really competitive roaming rates. But, hopefully, the committee’s recommendations will go a long way toward reducing the cost of phoning home in the future. Hopefully, the committee’s recommendations will be taken up and implemented. I think they are commonsense. They are certainly not recommendations that are way out or not achievable. It is most important that there be a regulatory framework that enables us to be sure that—as much as is possible—we can budget for and allow for the correct use of a mobile phone whilst we are travelling overseas.

I was very proud and pleased to be part of the communications committee report. I commend the chair for her dedication to the chosen task. I think all of the committee members worked well on a topic that is not an easy topic to get really involved in. It is quite complex. I commend every committee member who really put themselves in the position of questioning intently the people who appeared before our committee—the regulators, the providers and the telcos. I have already commended the chair, who has just walked into the room, for her great chairmanship of this committee. I was very pleased to be part of a very active and extremely well organised committee in producing this report, Phoning home.