Telecom promises protection from big bills

Telecom says it is planning a range of new features to help protect subscribers from the cost of sudden, unexpected increases in network traffic.

Telecom says it is planning a range of new features to help protect subscribers from the cost of sudden, unexpected increases in network traffic.

Group marketing manager Sandra Geange says the company encourages subscribers to keep an eye on their internet usage, but doesn’t currently itemise traffic in the event of a dispute and doesn’t shield its customers from some potential threats.

“The service doesn’t really include much in the way of security features,” she says. “We would agree that we should be doing more and we’re planning to introduce new features.

“It’s going to take a bit of time.”

Telecom is considering improving its after-sales support, a more user-friendly and adaptable usage meter, and some kind of “semi-firewall” features for home and small-business users, Geange says.

A priority is fixing the notification service that warns when subscribers approach their traffic limit. The JetStream usage meter on the Telecom website lists the service as problematic and “currently unavailable".

“That’s inconvenient for our customers right now,” says Geange.

Telecom was responding to a Computerworld query about users of high-speed internet services who find their bills have suddenly ballooned. Many connections, including ADSL services such as JetStart and JetStream, allow transfer of a limited amount of data each month. When a subscriber exceeds that limit a higher per-megabyte charge takes effect which can push the monthly charge up to thousands of dollars.

One such subscriber is Mark Boettcher, a Christchurch software engineer. He has been battling Telecom over a surprise $2266 bill for two months’ use of his JetStream ADSL connection. Although Telecom sent him a spreadsheet showing the broad time periods his internet usage was recorded, Boettcher is frustrated that he can’t get a more detailed explanation of the bill.

“My basic complaint is that Telecom can put whatever number it wants for my usage on my monthly bill with absolutely no accountability for accuracy for that number,” he says.

“They said ‘Get an IT specialist,’” Boettcher told Computerworld. “I am an IT specialist.”

There are a number of reasons why network traffic might increase unexpectedly. A common cause is the use of file-sharing programs such as Kazaa. More maliciously, nuisance software such as viruses can attempt to spread themselves though email or other internet services.

Home users and small businesses are particularly vulnerable to attack, as they do not have the services of a professional IT department and networks are not configured to resist attacks, while corporate networks typically filter traffic at the firewall to guard against viruses and prevent the operation of file-sharing software.

Boettcher is mystified by the amount of traffic Telecom recorded, and says much of it happened at times when he was asleep and not using his computer. He says he is a frequent user of antivirus software, and denies that file-sharing software could be at fault. “I guarantee you, I have not had Kazaa or anything like that.”

David Russell, chief executive of the Consumers’ Institute, says there is no obligation for internet providers to give a detailed breakdown of a customer’s bill. He recommends users keep a list of their own browsing, either manually or through software, but accepts that is “a big ask” for most small businesses or home users.

Russell does say providers should attempt to contact a customer when their usage suddenly increases dramatically, drawing a comparison with credit card merchants who can contact a customer “literally within minutes” if a card is suddenly used to make large purchases.

Billing disputes illustrate the need for an industry ombudsman, says Russell. “We have raised it time and time again. The idea’s always been dismissed.”

ISPs spoken to by Computerworld say they don’t keep records of a customer’s internet use, other than the data delivered over time. The best protection for customers is to install antivirus software and a firewall, they say.

TelstraClear’s internet solutions group product manager, Muneeb Bhatti, says the onus is on the customer to watch their internet traffic.

“We encourage all our customers to look at their usage on a regular basis,” he says. “If there is any trend that is emerging, we can then on a case-by-case basis look at the traffic going to the customer.”

Bhatti says he believes ISPs may start offering optional traffic filtering services to protect against traffic generated by file-sharing software or trojans, as well as more sophisticated filtering.

“That’s what I can see happening, in the next six to 12 months,” he says. “This is something which some ISPs will come up with it, and we are looking at what we can do in this space as well.”

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