I spoke in parliament yesterday, arguing that Australian mobile phone plans are too complex, and phone companies should make them simpler.
Complex Mobile Phone Plans
23 November 2011
I rise to speak on the unnecessary complexity of mobile phone plans in Australia. According to the 2009-10 report of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, 15 million Australians use a mobile phone. Thirty-seven per cent of Australian adults use a mobile phone as their main form of communication. Mobile phones are an integral part of life for many of us. They help us stay connected while travelling, simplify the process of meeting a friend on the weekend, make it easier for tradespeople to do their jobs and allow parents to keep tabs on their teenagers. The mobile phone is a great piece of technology, yet the process of choosing a mobile phone plan is currently Byzantine.
I recall moving back from the United States to Australia in 2004. In the US, choosing a mobile phone plan is simple: you pick a handset and choose the number of minutes per month—500, 1,000 or unlimited minutes each month. The choice is simple, and you can readily compare across mobile phone carriers. Having lived in the US for four years, nothing had prepared me for the complexity of Australian mobile phone plans. First, you have to choose from among a plethora of handsets. Then you have to choose your cap. The cap is expressed in dollars, but of course that does not mean anything because it depends on how much each call costs. If you tell me that I have $50 for calls, that is twice as much calling time if calls cost 50c a minute as if they cost a dollar a minute
Again, it is not easy to figure out how much a call costs. With many carriers there is a flag-fall charge, meaning that the first minute carries a different price from subsequent minutes. Sometimes it is cheaper to call people whose mobile phones are on the same network. Some carriers have lower off-peak charges. Calls to landlines are often priced differently from calls made to other mobiles. For voicemail, some plans charge for leaving messages, some for retrieving messages and some for neither. So, if you want to know how much your month’s calls will cost, you need to be thinking about how often you call landlines, how often you call mobiles, which carriers your friends use, what time of day you make your calls and how many voicemail messages you expect to receive. Are you confused? I know I am. If you have an ABN, you are eligible to buy a phone on a business plan, which for many people just introduces another layer of complexity. If you are a tradesperson, you now have to compare the personal plans and the business plans. And did I mention that you can choose a prepaid or a postpaid plan?
So in 2004, when my wife arrived here a couple of weeks after me, she could not work out why, although I had been in the country for two weeks, I still had not been able to choose a mobile phone plan. But it has only gotten more complicated since then. Many US mobile phone contracts provide unlimited data downloads. But an Australian mobile phone buyer has to decide how much data they want to download. Then they have to look at the excess fees for going over that cap. Sometimes products such as Twitter, Facebook or Myspace will be excluded, or off-peak data charges will be lower. Text messages are charged differently again. And don’t get me started on the exorbitant cost of data roaming if you decide to use your mobile phone to check email overseas.
I defy anyone to sit down with the contracts for half a dozen mobile phone carriers, each offering a handful of plans, and choose the one that best suits their needs. The complexity of Australian mobile phone plans most harms people with low levels of financial literacy. Complexity hurts the poor, new migrants and the elderly. In this sense, unnecessary complexity operates like a regressive tax.
Labor has always stood on the side of consumers. The Gillard government has taken steps to improve consumer rights—providing simpler information to credit card and home loan customers, and standardising terms in insurance contracts. Under the new Australian Consumer Law, consumer guarantees are enforceable as statutory rights, while unfair contract terms can be declared void if they cause a significant imbalance. This allows the regulator potentially to work with mobile phone carriers to deal with unfair contract terms. I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, David Bradbury, for his work on improving consumer protection in Australia. But I think it is also important that mobile phone companies recognise their responsibility to customers and start offering a simpler product.