Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Optus cutting off customers without warning, blaming NBN

Optus is cutting off cable customers' phones and broadband without warning, sometimes blaming NBN, as part of Optus' rush to shut down its HFC cable network in NBN-ready areas.

Investigations by Fairfax Media have uncovered a pattern of misinformation and heavy-handed tactics as Optus rushes to migrate its HFC cable users to the NBN network, while coercing them into remaining Optus customers and sometimes insisting they sign a new 24-month contract.

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman reveals Australian's biggest NBN gripes and which mobile network lifted its game in 2015-16.

Optus representatives are telling customers that NBN or "the government" are to blame for the tight migration deadline, inflaming an ongoing feud with NBN over Optus' threats to cut off customers within weeks rather than abiding by the NBN's public 18-month switchover commitment.

While currently threatening to cut off cable services within as little as 30 days in several suburbs across Melbourne and Sydney, Optus has already cut off some home and business customers with little or no warning – leaving them without a phone or broadband service for weeks and perhaps unable to recover their old phone number once services are restored.

Auburn NSW business owner Glenn arrived at work last week to discover his Optus phone and cable broadband lines had been cut off without warning. The area was declared NBN-ready last year, but the NBN rollout map indicates Glenn's business has more than two months left to switch across. When he called Optus, Glenn was told that his business was disconnected because he had missed the cable cutoff deadline.

"We have suffered considerable inconvenience, damage and cost to our business," Glenn says. "I was told Optus was simply complying with government policy by shutting down the cable network."

Meanwhile, Burwood NSW resident Gino discovered his Optus home phone had been disconnected last week after the district nurse who cares for his invalid wife could not call his home. While Gino had received two letters from Optus regarding the cable shutdown, he had been assured over the telephone that his service would not be cut without warning.

Gino is still without a home phone service as he negotiates with Optus to retain his old phone number of 33 years, and has lodged a complaint with the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO)

Prasanna of Wheelers Hill, Victoria, had his Optus phone and broadband disconnected earlier this month – only one week after receiving notification via SMS of the cable shutdown. Optus says he has permanently lost his home phone number – used as the RSVP number for 700 guests invited to a family wedding – and that his services won't be reconnected until April 4.

"We were told that if we wanted to continue with the internet we have to sign up with Optus otherwise they cannot guarantee when an NBN technician could come out to us," says Prasanna, who is also lodging a TIO complaint.

"We were told numerous times it was NBN's actions that led to our disconnection. That it wasn't Optus' fault, it was compulsory."

Other Optus customers across Sydney and Melbourne have reported similar experiences, some caught in disputes with Optus for months, culminating in phone and broadband being cut without warning as part of a botched migration process.

Behind the scenes, Optus has ignored NBN's objections to the rapid cable shutdown, pointing to the Optus cable user agreement that permits Optus to terminate the service. Last week, Optus began granting customers 90 days to switch rather than 30, after Fairfax Media raised the issue.

While Optus has not explained why customers were told that NBN or the government were to blame, it concedes responsibility for the rapid cable switchoff.

"Optus acknowledges that it is not the government or NBN that is driving Optus' decision to quickly migrate customers to the national broadband network," says a spokesperson. "Our intention is always to ensure customers are able to transition to the NBN in a seamless way, however, we have identified that some customers were recently disconnected and left without service."

"Optus will provide customers with compensation for the loss of their telephone and/or broadband services, and will continue to work with our front line teams to ensure we provide information to customers as they transition to the NBN."

While Optus says it has "reconnected these customers and is contacting them to apologise for the inconvenience and distress this has caused", at the time of publication Fairfax Media was still aware of affected services yet to be restored. Optus says it is "reviewing disconnection records".

NBN declined to comment on Optus' disconnection tactics, instead referring to last week's comment that "any actions resulting in earlier disconnection of end users is solely at the discretion and responsibility of the Retail Service Provider – it is not an action being taken by NBN nor is NBN involved in any way".

As pressure mounts on Optus to change its heavy-handed NBN migration tactics, there are calls to grant the NBN greater power to settle such feuds and pull internet service providers into line.

NBN should be ultimately responsible for ensuring end users are treated fairly, and granted the power to force internet service providers to comply, says Laurie Patton – Internet Australia board member and former CEO.

"Broadband customers are stuck in this nightmare game of pass the parcel and the buck must stop somewhere," Patton says.

"NBN should be ultimately responsible for ensuring end user delivery and I have proposed the creation of a universal service delivery obligation, which would grant NBN the power and the responsibility for ensuring that its broadband resellers act appropriately and deliver on their promises."

Federal Minister for Communications Senator Mitch Fifield has confronted Optus over its behaviour and instructed the Department of Communications to work with Optus and NBN to address the issue.

"Optus' approach is unacceptable and the Minister has conveyed this directly to the company," says a spokesperson for the Minister. "Optus' actions are a departure from the NBN transition framework which the industry has been operating under and the deadline Optus is imposing on its customers is not a result of government policy nor NBN action."

"We understand that Optus is writing to apologise to customers and correct some of the information provided. The Minister has asked the Department of Communications to work with Optus and NBN to minimise further service disruptions for affected customers."

Friday, March 10, 2017

Optus threatens disconnection to sign up NBN customers and fast-track HFC cable shutdown

Optus is ignoring the NBN's 18-month switchover commitment and threatening to cut off cable customers within weeks, using strongarm tactics to sign them up as Optus NBN customers before they can consider changing provider.

Optus is calling its cable broadband customers in newly NBN-ready areas and threatening both telephone and broadband disconnection in 30 days – including the permanent loss of their home phone number – if they don't migrate from Optus cable to the NBN network. The calls come before those customers have received a "Ready For Service" letter from the NBN indicating they can sign up with their internet service provider of choice.
Australia's telco complaints by the numbers

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman reveals Australian's biggest NBN gripes and which mobile network lifted its game in 2015-16.

After threatening cable disconnection, the Optus representative then offers to arrange an NBN connection appointment before the 30-day deadline, to transfer the customer to an Optus NBN service – in some cases forcing them onto a new 24-month contract – without explaining that they have a choice of internet service provider. Shutting down the cable network also cuts off the "Optus TV featuring Foxtel" legacy pay TV service which Optus currently delivers via cable.

Some Optus cable customers in the Melbourne suburb of East Keilor received a letter from the NBN in mid-December explaining that NBN installations would commence by May. The letter stated that; "We will notify you by mail when you can order a plan which uses the NBN network".

While these homes were still waiting on that follow-up letter from the NBN, Optus began calling them at the start of March to explain that their cable service would be cut off within 30 days if they did not move across to the NBN. If they missed the cut-off date they would permanently lose their home phone number and need to wait 20 days for their phone and internet access to be reconnected.

Other Optus customers in the area did not receive calls but were told of the 30-day deadline and threatened with disconnection via a letter from Optus. When questioned regarding the impending Ready For Service letter from the NBN, Optus is telling some customers that this NBN letter is not coming and Optus' letters take its place.

Optus' behaviour in East Keilor is not an isolated incident, the revelations come as part of an ongoing feud with the NBN over Optus' heavy-handed customer migration tactics and its refusal to abide by the NBN's public commitment to ensure that premises are granted an 18-month window during which they can switch to an NBN service.

Other suburbs currently reaching NBN Ready for Service which have Optus cable customers include Glen Waverley, Beaumaris and Ferntree Gully in Melbourne, along with Kellyville, Edgecliff, Wetherill Park, Sefton and Cheltenham in Sydney.

Optus' HFC cable network covers around 2 million premises across the country, with roughly half a million active users before the NBN migration began. There is a significant overlap with the Telstra HFC cable network, and around 1.5 million Australian premises have access to both cables in their street.

Reports that the entire Optus HFC cable footprint area will now receive fibre to the curb are incorrect, this will only occur in areas where Optus cable is available but not Telstra cable. If both Optus and Telstra cable are available in a street, such is in parts of East Keilor, the Telstra cable will become NBN cable and homes will switch to this NBN cable as the Optus cable is switched off.

When the NBN opted to scrap the Optus cable network and only incorporate the Telstra cable network into the new national broadband network, Optus began to shut down its cable network in suburbs as soon as the NBN arrived – ignoring the NBN's objections and pointing to the Optus cable user agreement which permits Optus to terminate the service.

In suburbs such as East Keilor, which have both Optus and Telstra cable, Optus is rushing to shift its cable customers across to the Telstra cable as soon as it is declared an NBN service. It is then taking advantage of this tight deadline to ensure customers stay with Optus when moving to the NBN.

By quickly killing off its broadband and Pay TV services in the suburb, rather than granting customers an 18-month switchover window, Optus can quickly decommission its cable network infrastructure and free up fibre running to the exchange to use as backhaul support for the Optus mobile towers.

When contacted by Fairfax Media, an Optus spokesperson did not deny the telco's efforts to fast-track the HFC cable network shutdown but claimed that affected customers in East Keilor had incorrectly been given a 30-day deadline and actually had 90 days to make the switch to the NBN. Optus says it is in the process of contacting affected customers to clarify the matter, although Fairfax Media understands that the 30-day disconnection threat had been common practice until Fairfax Media raised the issue with Optus this week.

While the NBN is committed to an 18-month switchover window, Optus has made a "business decision" to fast-track this process in its HFC cable areas.

"While the NBN has indicated that copper or HFC networks will be shut down within 18 months of an area becoming serviceable, providers of existing internet services, such as Optus, may make the decision to disconnect services sooner," the Optus spokesperson says.

"Optus has taken a business decision to migrate customers to the NBN as soon as an area becomes serviceable. We're taking every step to assist customers to place an NBN order so they can transition to the NBN as quickly as possible."

On the issue of using strongarm tactics to coerce cable customers to stay with Optus when switching to the NBN – by calling customers before they receive the NBN Ready For Service letter – the spokesperson says Optus is calling in advance to offer customers the opportunity to "pre-order" an NBN service. In light of Fairfax Media's enquiries, Optus is reviewing its customer communications and will be providing "additional support to our front line teams" regarding the closure of the HFC network and migrating customers to the NBN.

"Optus does not condone coercive behaviour towards our customers. Should an existing Optus HFC customer decide that they would like to take an NBN service with another provider, they can do so by placing an order with that provider," the Optus spokesperson says.

"Providers may contact a resident before an area is declared Ready For Service to advise them that the NBN is coming to their area and to pre-order an NBN service. Optus contacts its HFC customers during this period."

The NBN is not responsible for Optus' decision to ignore the standard 18-month migration window, according to an NBN spokesperson.

"NBN provides for a standard migration window of 18-months for all of its access technologies including HFC. This gives consumers ample time to consider their internet plan options and best determine the retail provider that suits their needs," the NBN spokesperson says.

"Any actions resulting in earlier disconnection of end users is solely at the discretion and responsibility of the Retail Service Provider – it is not an action being taken by NBN nor is NBN involved in any way."

In response to Optus' NBN aggressive migration tactics, Teresa Corbin – chief executive of consumer advocacy group the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network – says Australians are entitled to sufficient time to consider their options before they shift to the NBN.

"For consistency and to avoid confusion among consumers, it would be better if all networks followed similar transition periods," Corbin says. "Short switch over periods may require consumers to stay with the same provider and prevent them from taking advantage of other providers or better deals over the NBN."

"We understand that Optus incorrectly informed some consumers that they had 30 days to switch, not 90 days. This is a very short timeframe for consumers to switch, which would have put pressure on them to rush their switching decisions. Consumers should not be subjected to undue pressure during this switch over period."