Report: Broadband providers should do more to educate consumers

Broadband service providers should take more responsibility for educating and informing customers about the specifications of broadband product offerings, industry representatives claim.

Representatives from several service providers agree that although industry watchdogs such as the Australian Communications Authority (ACA), Telecommunications Industry Ombudsmen and the Australian Communications Industry Forum (ACIF) provide consumers with plenty of avenues for pursuing concerns over broadband services, it is ultimately the ISP’s role to assist consumers with understanding the technology.

“The onus is on the ISP to be transparent and fair,” Pacific Internet managing director Dennis Muscat said.

The comment follows the release of a new report commissioned by the ACA examining consumer issues with broadband.

Drafted for the ACA by consultancy group dandolopartners, the report was derived from two ACA workshops held in Sydney and Melbourne in June. Workshop attendees included representatives from the National Farmers’ Federation, the Australian Telecommunications Users Group and ACIF’s consumer advisory council.

At the top of the report’s list of consumer issues is the confusion created by the marketing message, speed and download limits promised by broadband service providers.

“In the context of limited knowledge the tendency to market broadband on the basis of simple promises such as broadband being very fast or ‘always on’ can lead to disillusionment when they are not borne out in the reality of the product or customer contracts,” the report states.

In addition, “customers are not made clearly aware that there may be limitations on availability of the speeds promised, that the advertised speeds are usually maximums or based on ‘best endeavours’ rather than guarantees.”

In many instances, concerns with broadband services could be addressed by better communication between the ISPs and consumers, the report concludes.

“At least for a time, attention needs to be given to consumer education and transparency of information – this will also help drive take-up.”

The report recommends ISPs produce basic types of information for consumers using standardised characteristics. These could include costs per megabyte, a measurement of average access speeds, average of monthly downtimes based on past network performance levels, any limitations on the service in terms of download limits, compatibility issues with hardware or software, and costs of installation.

While most of this information is already specified by ISPs in the form of terms and conditions, it is often not available in a checklist form which can be compared between different provider offerings, the report states.

“Some of these measures would need to be the subject of agreed industry standards, for example, how to express an average or effective speed of a service,” the report adds.

Pacific Internet’s Muscat said it was important for ISPs to provide consumers with simplified information on their broadband product offerings.

“Good ISPs should be as transparent as they can, and try to make clear those areas of concerns,” he said. “For example, excess usage clauses should not be buried on page 43 of the contract. ISPs should highlight ‘headline’ items.”

The report findings give ISPs an indication of consumer expectation levels regarding broadband services and showed ISPs needed to simplify their broadband offerings, Muscat said. But he disagreed with the need for introducing standardised types of information across all broadband providers.

“It is difficult to standardise anything – you’ll always have exceptions,” Muscat said. “This can cause more confusion and problems with broadband services.”

In contrast, Request general manager for product development and regulatory and ACIF working committee member Gary McLaren said a number of key parameters regarding broadband services should be defined and provided by ISPs to all prospective customers by means of a service definition framework.

One example of such a parameter which Request has recommended to the ACA is an “oversubscription ratio”. This would require all service providers to disclose how many of their customers share the equivalent amount of bandwidth being sold to each individual customer.

“This is a key factor which determines the consistency and predictability of the service speed actually experienced by the customer,” he said.

A second aim of the report was to advise ACIF on the viability of an industry-wide code relating to broadband quality of service.

Among those service standards identified in the report which needed to be addressed by ISPs are timeframes for installation and fault repair, policies relating to outages such as rebates, provision of alternative technologies to main access to e-mail and other critical services, as well as an option for itemised billing.

Although the report agrees there is a “strong commercial imperative” to meet these needs, it concludes regulatory intervention at this point in time could be detrimental to overall broadband growth.

“At this stage intervention to the imposition of codes or standards may inhibit the growth of this nascent industry,” the report states.

“In our view there are good arguments for allowing the broadband industry time to become more fully established before placing too onerous regulatory requirements on it.

“A watching brief rather than service code may be more in order.”

Although McLaren disagreed with the idea that the industry was not yet fully established, he admitted introducing compulsory service levels could raise the costs of accessing these services in the residential space.

“Instead, the focus should be on ensuring all service providers inform their prospective customers about the relevant service characteristics they offer so customers can make informed choices,” he said.

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