Vodafone Oz complaints still a problem: TIO

Complaints about Vodafone's Australian mobile network have doubled in the first three months of 2011 as customers struggled to deal with continued dropouts and signal issues, according to the telco industry ombudsman.

Complaints about Vodafone’s Australian mobile network have doubled in the first three months of 2011 as customers struggled to deal with continued dropouts and signal issues, according to the telco industry ombudsman.

Figures for the first quarter of the year, released this week, found a total of 14,670 new complaints were registered to the TIO about Vodafone between January and March, making up nearly a quarter of the more than 59,000 total number of new complaints registered during the quarter. Complaints as a whole increased by 14,000 compared to the fourth quarter of 2010, and 17,000 more than the same period last year.

However, more than 90 per cent of the total number of new complaints received during the quarter were identified as level one by the ombudsman, meaning they were settled directly between the consumer and the telco after notifying the ombudsman.

In its quarterly results (PDF), the TIO noted most complaints against Vodafone were registered during January of this year, when the majority of media scrutiny and customer attention was drawn to the issue.

The complaints, which first began in December last year, led to the creation of the Vodafail advocacy site and a class action suit led by law firm Piper Alderman that has, to date, garnered 20,000 responses against the telco.

Vodafail itself received 16,000 contributions in an attempt to map the telco's coverage across key areas of Australia.

Despite claims of many of the problems initially felt having been solved, the telco has experienced continued disruptions to its network, last month having been forced to offer a free SMS day as compensation for failures to its SMS messaging system on 24 April.

Yet in its 2010 annual report (PDF), Vodafone Hutchison Australia partner Hutchison Australia (ASX:HTA), the company reported subscriber growth of 681,000 new customers during 2010, amounting to a total subscriber base of 7.576 million customers.

VHA chief executive, Nigel Dews, also pointed to growth in postpaid customers and a growing number of 3G service user on the network as a positive sign for the company.

Half of all 2010 capital was directed toward network investment, according to Dews, including the rollout of a 850MHz network first announced last year. Plans have since accelerated to include a nationwide upgrade of all base stations for both 3G and LTE capability, beginning last month along the NSW Central Coast.

“Our accelerated network plan and addition of 300 customer service staff means customers are seeing improvements and we are confident that we will continue to deliver a significantly improved experience,” Dews said.

An annual general meeting scheduled for Tuesday is expected to reveal more details about the telco’s handling of customer complaints.

Connecting the customer, sooner

The refreshed TIO statistics came as the communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has begun finalising its report on the ‘Reconnecting the Customer’ inquiry into customer service at telcos.

The inquiry, which has received 162 submissions in total since its announcement last year, is expected to suggest more regulation of telcos in order to improve service standards.

“What is blindingly obvious is that the market has failed to deliver around the issue of customer care and protection,” ACMA chairman, Chris Chapman, told attendees of the CommsDay Summit in Sydney last month.

“As I understand it, the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code will make it clear that all participants in the sector will be bound; will need to own it. Psychologically, that’s progress.”

However, an address from Telstra chief executive, David Thodey, at the same summit urged for industry cooperation on the matter, rather than more regulation.

Commenting on the statistics, TIO board member and chief executive of consumer advocacy group the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN), Theresa Corbin, said it was a “new low” for customer service levels.

“The ombudsman has called this a ‘grim’ quarter for telco consumers but we think that’s putting it mildly,” she said in a statement.

“This disastrous result at such a critical time would be laughable if the impact of this industry’s inability to get it right didn’t affect so many millions of Australians every single day.”

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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