CONSUMER cops will recruit thousands of households to expose companies lying about NBN speeds.
The new broadband force is to be made up of volunteers who would have a probe attached to their modem or router to track downloading, uploading and streaming.
The results would be used to prepare a regular report on what consumers actually get on the most popular NBN offerings from the likes of Telstra, Optus and TPG and how this compares to advertised speeds.
There are already seven million fixed broadband customers and this figure is expected to surge as more and more people connect to the NBN.
Many who already have believe they are not getting what was promised, with slower-than-expected data speeds now the no. 1 complaint to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, up 48 per cent in 2015-16.
News Corp Australia can today reveal that in a bid to bring more transparency to the market, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will soon call for tenders to assemble an army of as many as 4000 volunteer monitors.
The brief is likely to specify the army be a mix of happy and dissatisfied users in cities and regions on NBN plans offering “up to” 25 Megabits per second, 12 Mbps or 100Mbps — the first, second and third-most-popular National Broadband Network options.
The ACCC is modelling its monitoring program on the UK system, which uses about 2000 volunteers to track seven providers’ packages at different speeds. Given Telstra, Optus and TPG between them have four out of every five NBN customers, it is possible the ACCC’s broadband force will be able to keep tabs on nearly the entire high-speed market.
The ACCC is not ready to accept participants because it still needs the Federal Government to provide sign-off — and about $6 million.
Once the commission has the official okay and the money it will need three to four months to get ready. The goal is to be able to publish an initial report this year.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield’s spokeswoman said it was still “giving consideration” to the ACCC’s plan. But a green light is considered a formality.
There is a Plan B, which involves relying on retailers to do their own monitoring. Consultation with industry and consumers has found this to lack credibility.
The ACCC has been pushing for a monitoring program since running a trial in Melbourne in 2015 involving 90 volunteer households. The ACCC has said the trial produced “meaningful comparisons between ... service providers” on download and upload speeds.
The UK monitoring program also reports on the extent to which download speeds vary by time of day, as well as urban versus rural performance. The Melbourne trial was run by a company called SamKnows Limited, as is the UK system, although it would not automatically get the job for a full-blown Australian monitoring scheme.
IS Usain Bolt being used to out-run consumer law?
It’s a question being asked inside the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission amid concerns that NBN packages are being sold on spin rather than substance.
It is pushing retailers to clarify claims being made in advertising so that it is easier to assess whether legal “consumer guarantees” are being breached.
The ACCC has published six “principles” it wants broadband retailers to adopt. These include providing consumers with typical busy period speeds and performance information should be in “standard” terms.
Optus uses the world’s fastest man in the marketing of its NBN packages, describing the service as “Usain Bolt fast”.
Its other brand ambassadors include the world’s fastest bowler, paceman Mitchell Starc, and four-time track time trial cycling world champion Anna Meares.
The ACCC is seeking to bring a federal-court case against a telco that is breaching the consumer guarantees. While the ACCC has said it is monitoring how broadband is being marketed, News Corp Australia is not suggesting Optus will be brought before the courts.
Asked whether it was using Usain Bolt to out-run consumer law, an Optus spokeswoman said it “always takes consumer information seriously and takes steps to verify technical claims made in our marketing materials”.
A Telstra spokesman said it would soon start “publishing data that outlines performance of our NBN-based services during busy periods when demand is greatest ... and introduce technology that gives customers a realistic estimate of network speeds into their premises before they take up an NBN service”.
TPG did not respond to requests for comment.