Telco users have no champion to call their own

Despite the new telecommunications regime, telco users are unable to complain about service to any government department.

Despite the new telecommunications regime, telco users are unable to complain about service to any government department.

The Commerce Commission, which houses the newly appointed telecommunications commissioner, does not undertake such a role - unless the complaint falls under the Fair Trading Act, says spokeswoman Gail Kernohan.

"There is no scope under the act for us to take complaints as such unless it's for fair trading reasons."

Kernohan says the commission is a regulatory body in this instance, although the situation is similar to that of electricity company complaints.

"We regulate the electricity industry but complaints are handled by another department entirely. We're not involved."

That agency is the newly created electricity complaints ombudsman's office.

The Commerce Commission also doesn't have any authority to conduct an external audit of telecommunication companies' billing systems.

Questions over Telecom's usage meter, which bills customers using JetStream, and its accuracy have been raised by users in a number of fora, however there seems to be no independent public audit of either the meter, the billing system or indeed any other part of the billing regime.

"If it was an electricity meter then those are checked regularly," says Kernohan who admits the question of auditing the billing regime has merit.

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs manager for weights and measures, John Barker, says it's not his department either.

"We are confined to issues regarding weight, length, volume and area measurement and there are no standards in relation to time measurement."

Barker says the Weights and Measures Act would need to be amended before his department could get involved.

"It's not an issue that is currently on our work programme."

Barker says the Australian counterpart to his department did look at one of Telstra's systems in such a manner.

"They did approve it for use under the National Measurement Act, but I don't think they followed through with any other systems."

Consumers Institute chief executive David Russell says there is no authority that looks after telecommunication complaints in this manner.

"With electricity there's the commissioner, with banking there's the ombudsman, with insurance there's an ombudsman but there's not a comparable office [for telecommunications]."

Russell says complaints over a usage meter dispute could fall under the Commerce Commission's brief as a general fair trading issue.

"If you think you've been mislead or deceived in some way you can go to the Commerce Commission."

The Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) has looked at the issue in the past, says chief executive Ernie Newman.

"We are a group primarily of business users not residential and so have a reasonable amount of clout in sorting out issues. There are disputes tribunals and we believe there is no evidence at this stage that a distinct ombudsman with all the cost and structure and complexity would add net value on behalf of users, but we have an open mind on that."

Newman says this is an issue that will become more prevalent as telcos bill on a traffic basis rather than time.

"Users are required to take a lot on trust from their telcos. First responsibility in that case is on the carrier to work out ways in which it can satisfy the customer that it's being fair with its charges. If you're selling a service that the user has no means to quantify then you have a high level of moral responsibility over your bills."

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