How to get money out of your telco, in 37 simple steps

Before I get started, to my point about globally-accessible writing, let me warn you that this post is only going to have practical relevance to Australians. However anyone who has ever been screwed by a telco may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from the story.

When I first moved into my current apartment after moving back to Australia, one of my top priorities was getting the Internet connected (yes, I'm addicted, and the several weeks without reliable access while in temporary accommodation was painful). Getting a telephone line was not a high priority, but it turned out that while it was possible to get broadband without a phone line, it wasn't actually cost effective. So we went to our friendly neighbourhood telco, Optus in this case, and applied to get a landline connected. At first they said they could get us connected within 3 days or so, but they quickly got back to us and said that they had made a mistake, and actually their connections always take 10 business days. So on the 10th day I was required to hang around at home all afternoon waiting for the technician to turn up within the vague designated window. I was not at all surprised when nobody had turned up at the end of the period, but of course I needed to find out what was going on. After waiting on hold (on my mobile) for a long time and being transferred to countless different departments, I was cheerfully informed that everything was done and my service was operational. Actually it wasn't the slightest bit operational, but this advice was inconsistent with what Optus's records said, and their records are apparently never wrong. It was only after I got him to try calling my new number that he started to think I might be onto something. It took another 3 days to figure out what they did wrong, but in any event they did fix it without needing to come into the apartment, and eventually we got connected.

Call me unreasonable if you will, but I really thought that needing to wait almost 3 weeks for a phone connection in an inner city suburb, for an apartment that was already connected to the phone network, was far from reasonable. Luckily here in Australia, the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman is inclined to agree. The TIO is responsible for defining and policing the Customer Service Guarantee (CSG), which states minimum service levels that all telcos are obliged to meet. For example, the CSG states that new connections in urban areas with existing infrastructure must be done within 2 business days. The CSG also defines penalties that telcos must pay if the service levels are not met - and according to my calculations, my 13 day wait meant that they owed me $363.

Do you know the difference between theory and practice? Well, in theory, there is no difference, but in practice there is. In theory, CSG penalty payments are automatic, but in practice Optus offered to pay penalties only for the final 3 days after the first connection attempt failed. Attempting to understand their logic was complicated by another several rounds of being placed on hold and transferred to random departments, but eventually they told me that the 2 day CSG period didn't apply since there wasn't any existing infrastructure at our place. Exactly what kind of infrastructure they were hoping for remains a mystery to this day (probably some kind of public monument built in Optus's honour), but the presence of a working phone line from another carrier when we moved in was evidence enough for me that all of the important infrastructure was in place. But Optus believed otherwise and refused to budge.

My only remaining hope was to get the TIO to escalate the complaint, which they were happy to do. This process took quite a few weeks, and neither Optus nor the TIO ever formally told me the outcome - but over the last couple of months we've been seeing a lot of mysterious credits on our phone bills that total very close to $363. While this battle was fought for principles rather than monetary gain, it was nice to know that our recent weekend getaway to the Blue Mountains was so generously financed by our good friends at Optus.

But the most unsettling thing, and the main reason I'm blogging about this, is that it appears that Optus performs local phone connections in no less than 10 days as a matter of policy. If this is indeed true, it means that there must be many, many people who are owed CSG penalties. If you fall into this category, you may well want to call Optus and remind them of their obligations and let them know you're happy to escalate to the TIO if necessary. And while you're there, pass on my regards.

Comments (5)
  1. Pedro S says:

    Actually, if you look around you can find stories like this from just about anywhere. Most of the time connections happen rapidly and easily, but regularly when things go wrong they just tank.

    Now for you, who presumably don’t work from home, it’s one thing, but if you were working from home and this happened and you were using Google apps – you’d be done.

    Unreliable internet connections are for many people, even in the developed world, a way of life. Where I work our net connection falls over about 1-2 per week. Even the in house corporate apps collapse on occasion.

    Why people believe that introducing an unnecessary, brand new point of failure into systems will make things better is remarkable. People sometimes happily drink the Cool Aid.

  2. Matthew says:

    You are likely on Optus’ cable network (which is completely separate to Telstra’s PSTN network). So there probably was no existing infrastructure they could use (Optus don’t resell Telstra’s PSTN – well not at a reasonable rate anyway).

  3. san1t1 says:

    Sadly you still need a phone line to get broadband to ignore your phone companies products. Ho hum.

  4. Matthew – we are on Optus cable, but at a minimum it must have already been running down the street. That’s still "available infrastructure" in my book.

  5. Peter says:

    Ha ha, too funny.  I laugh not because of what you’ve gone through, but because this seems to be happening more and more.

    I am currently waiting for SEARS to fix my washing machine.  Apparently under warranty means: "we’ll get to it… eventually". To date, I have had 2 booked appointments where the technician was a no show. T minus 2 vacation days 🙁

    Tom: I enjoy reading your blog.

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