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Thursday, 9 December 2004
Page: 74

Senator CONROY (2:35 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. I refer to Telstra's practice of issuing mass service disruption notices following bad weather to exempt it from normal customer service standards. Is the minister aware that Telstra has issued over 100 of these notices so far this year? Does the minister agree with the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Anderson, who recently identified a need to tighten the capacity of telecommunications carriers to obtain exemptions from their community obligation timetable in the face of claimed problems with weather? Alternatively, does the minister stand by her comments in the Senate last August when she stated:

There is certainly no evidence—at least, none that has been brought to my attention—to suggest that Telstra are using outage notices inappropriately, nor that they would do so.

If so, has the minister told the Deputy Prime Minister that he is wrong?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Conroy for the question. The important point about this question is that we do in fact have a customer service guarantee framework that allows companies to claim exemptions from time frames which they cannot meet because of circumstances beyond their control, such as severe storms, bushfires, lightning strikes and cable cuts. Where exemptions cover a large area, they come under the category of `mass service disruptions'. For example, some events have the potential to dramatically increase the number of faults or prevent field staff from accessing an area to remedy the fault.

To claim a mass service disruption, a provider must either contact customers individually or publish in the newspaper details of the event causing the mass service disruption, the geographical impact, the affected number ranges and the likely duration of the disruption. The government and the ACA do closely watch the use of MSDs, and we would be concerned if it became clear that carriers were using the MSDs to try and avoid having to comply with the strict customer service guarantee time frames. The ACA had KPMG, the accounting firm, conduct an audit of the processes used by Telstra and Optus when claiming MSDs. The audit found that the companies had a robust system for assessing when it was appropriate to have an MSD. Since February the ACA has been closely monitoring the use of mass service disruptions by Telstra and reconciling the use of MSDs with detailed weather information from the Bureau of Meteorology to make sure that MSDs are only being used in legitimate circumstances.

That would seem to be the appropriate course—that they are needed in legitimate circumstances. It is important that the circumstances be verified so that it is appropriate that, when there is a disruption of a character, kind and dimension necessary to have a mass service disruption, that is what will happen. But it is, of course, diverting to say the least that these kinds of questions come from the Labor Party, who never had anything like a customer service guarantee framework to assist consumers. Labor's consumer safeguards were completely nonexistent. This government takes very seriously the need to roll out and deliver good telecommunications service facilities. It is important that the safeguards work; it is important that they deal with disruptions and it is important that disruptions are only claimed under legitimate circumstances. All of these matters are being attended to so that they are only being used appropriately and they are being properly monitored.

Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. In light of the Deputy Prime Minister's comments, will the government take action to ensure that telecommunications carriers comply with their community service obligations? Will government now adopt the recommendation of the Senate Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Committee that their customer service guaranteed regime should be amended to ensure that mass service disruption notices cannot be used by carriers to avoid their obligations to properly maintain their networks and to provide an acceptable standard of consumer service?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I have outlined what action has been taken to ensure that mass service disruptions are only used in appropriate circumstances. What I do want to remind those listening is that Labor's consumer safeguards in telecommunications were virtually nonexistent. Not only was there not a customer service guarantee or any assistance for consumers, but also the figure I have is that under Labor the most remote customers in Australia could expect to wait up to 27 months even to get a phone. Let alone worrying about whether there was a mass service disruption, they could not even get a phone so that it could go out of order! This government take our obligation to consumers in telecommunications matters very seriously, and no customer has to wait more than 20 working days for a new phone service. It is about time that the Labor Party realises that we have built these safeguards and we will maintain them.