Monitoring mobile phone usage

We find out why excessive phone bills continue to top consumer-complaint lists in Australia.
 
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01 .Bills that bite

Mobile_usage_Feb2012_LEAD

Mobile service providers are supposed to be making bill shock a thing of the past, but weak regulatory intervention has allowed plenty of lingering aftershocks.

We take a look at why excessive phone bills continue to top the list of consumer complaints in Australia and how the service providers continue to get away with it.

Despite a stern warning to the telcos by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) in September last year, massive phone bills and international roaming that costs as much as a night in a New York hotel continue to top the list of consumer complaints about mobile phone providers. 

ACMA found in its Reconnecting the Customer report last year that inadequate billing information and weak spend management systems were the main causes of high bills.

The finding didn’t surprise the Australian Communications ConsumerAction Network (ACCAN), which says mobile phone providers continue to sell limitless credit accounts to consumers without providing adequate spend protection. 

“We see a mobile phone contract as personal finance, much like a credit card,” says ACCAN spokesperson Elise Davidson. “The banks would be in enormous strife with regulators if they were simply able to issue credit cards with no limits, which is essentially what mobile plans are.”

For more information about mobile phones, see phones and mobile devices.

Local controls

In its 2011 report on the sector last year, ACMA said companies should introduce spend management tools that go beyond online monitoring systems and challenged the industry to make voluntary changes or risk new regulations. 

Until quite recently, the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Code, which serves as an industry guideline, did not call for an effective way to monitor the charges that accumulate during a billing period. 

The revised code, introduced in February now includes standardised requirements for spend management tools, but Davidson is sceptical about the changes. 

"All the Communications Alliance has done is tinker around the edges. Unfortunately we don't see the big ticket reforms to spend management that we believe are needed to put power back in the hands of consumers." 

"ACCAN cannot support the revised TCP Code because we don’t believe it provides adequate consumer protection" she says. 

Both Optus and Telstra now send SMS alerts to customers before they reach their monthly limit. Smaller carriers however, including Vodafone and Virgin, still require customers to sign up to receive balance alerts. The Code fails to provide real-time usage notifications for customers and has no transitional measures in place so customers to adequately track their spending.

ACMA's ultimatum

In a report issued six months ago, the telco regulator laid out the following recommendations for mobile phone providers designed to minimise customers’ bill shock:
  • An SMS or email notification to alert you at a specific usage point, as well as a second alert when you reach 95% of your monthly allowance.
  • Access to more information from your salesperson about usage limits, including the consequences of any contract limitations or exclusions, before entering into a contract.
  • A transition plan until the formal alerts system is introduced.

Update

Since publication, Vodafone have introduced an automatic alert that customers will receieve when they arrive in another country. The SMS will advise of the international rate specific to the country they are visiting as well as details of data roaming rates. Further to this, Vodafone customers will receive an SMS on their return to Australia reminding them to cancel any data roaming packages that are no longer needed.



 
 

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Mobile_usage_Feb2012_InfoBubbleWhile domestic spend management tools are the priority for ACMA, some stakeholders have focused on the murky and often excessive charges associated with international roaming. 

There is no requirement for Australian providers to warn you of roaming charges when you’re overseas, and many claim they are unable to provide real-time tracking due to a delay between overseas networks and home carriers. 

Mobile usage monitoring apps

But industry experts told CHOICE there are a number of apps available that allow you to monitor real time usage overseas. 

XVision’s DataMan allows iPhone users to track their data usage – the main concern when roaming with a smartphone – in real time, according to the company (CHOICE has not trialled the product). 

XVision owner, Johnny Ixe, told us the DataMan app tracks usage directly from the iOS mobile operating system rather than waiting for delayed network updates and is available for both domestic usage and roaming. DataMan offers a basic free version as well as a Pro version for $1.99 that includes real-time usage alerts. 

Telco alert systems

Optus and Telstra both provide an alert system for customers who are roaming but offer little information when you exceed your cap. 

This puts Australia somewhat behind the global trend. The European Union, for instance, mandated in 2009 that all providers must send automatic alerts to customers who are about to incur roaming charges. 

The Federal Communications Commission in the US is currently considering taking similar steps. While telephone calls and SMS are costly when overseas, the biggest sting comes from data. 

YouTube, Google Maps and social networking apps, including Twitter and Facebook, are the real culprits, says Luke McCallum from Sydney app design company, Cyberdesign Works. He believes the best way to prevent bill shock is to disable data roaming completely. 

ACCAN recommends limiting your internet usage to Wi-Fi zones and protecting yourself by switching data roaming off on both your handset and by calling your provider.

Data disaster

Evelyne Wilton was greeted with a $6500 phone bill in November after returning from a three-week holiday in Europe. 

Before leaving Australia, Optus advised Evelyne to disable automatic email download and minimise internet usage to ensure her roaming spend did not spiral out of control. While Evelyne was aware costs were involved, she was unaware of the biggest trap: data roaming. 

As her phone sat idle, the dollars on her bill continued to clock upwards. Simply switching her phone on for an hour transit in Singapore alone cost $150. 

Evelyne tells CHOICE she would have expected Optus to explain the hidden cost of data for customers who choose to activate roaming and provide a notification system when costs climb beyond what a customer would normally spend.

Although Optus had introduced an SMS alert system designed to minimise customer bill shock from international roaming in September 2011, Evelyne claims she did not receive any notification. 

"I would have appreciated if they contacted me when my account hit the first $1000 and warned me, so I could decide if I wanted to turn off roaming," she says. 

In January, Optus agreed to reduce Evelyne's bill and provided her with information on how to switch off certain data-hungry apps.

International roaming usage notifications

logo_Optus

SMS sent within one hour of first use, with a prompt to disable . Further alerts every 15MB (about $300) of usage if customers choose to proceed.

logo_Telstra

SMS sent to warn customers of the higher rates that overseas voice calls, SMS, MMS and data usage may incur.

logo_Vodafone

No automatic warning for customers who begin using data roaming when overseas. Customers can sign up to receive balance alerts that relate to their nominated spend.

logo_Virgin

No automatic warning for customers who begin using data roaming when overseas. Virgin provides customers with information when then manually switch it on.

Domestic usage notification

logo_Optus

SMS sent automatically when user reaches 80% of their included monthly value.

 

logo_Telstra

 SMS sent at 80% and 100% of monthly value. In coming months, data will be slowed rather than billed when a customer exceeds their limit.

logo_Vodafone

No automatic alert – customers must sign up to receive balance alerts.

 

logo_Virgin

No automatic alert – customers must sign up to receive balance alerts.

 

Online usage monitoring

Optus, Telstra, Vodafone and Virgin all provide online usage monitoring.

Mobile phone cap plans

CHOICE assessed the popular cap plans with the four carriers and found a number of key differences.

While standard calls hover around the 89-90c mark on all caps and the standard flagfall connection fee remains steady at 39-40c, data and credit inclusion varies widely.

  • The Optus TurboTelstra Encore caps both offer customers $1000 worth of call and text credit for $50, as well as a 2G data allowance.
  • Vodafone tends to limit the use of flexible credit and allocate a large amount of the recharge value to own-network calls. A $49 recharge on the Vodafone Flexi cap, for example, provides $350 worth of flexible call and text credit, although the remaining $650 credit is reserved for Vodafone to Vodafone calls. This option, however, offers 3G data and unlimited access to social networking sites.
  • Although the Virgin $49 cap recharge only offers customer $800 of call and text credit for the $49, slightly less than Optus and Telstra, it does offer free Virgin to Virgin calls. Its cap plan includes 1G data.

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