A five-year independent review into the practices of Australia’s Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman by Queen Margaret University’s Dr Gavin McBurnie and Jane Williams has revealed some interesting findings with regard to telcos and video game hardware.
The TIO is, of course, the independent body created to help the average Australian lodge more serious complaints when dealing with national telecommunications providers. If you feel your telco has treated you wrongly or unfairly, you can take the case to the TIO and, should your issue fall under its purview, have it go to battle with the telco on your behalf.
The findings we’re about to discuss come under the heading Equipment, starting on page 94. The third in a list of issues related to changes in the TIO’s Terms of Reference concerns “the degree to which the TIO should be able to consider complaints about equipment sold or provided by telecom businesses.” This is important because the way we interface with our telco providers has changed significantly. Telcos today don’t just sign people up to phone plans — they deal in all sorts of internet-enabled devices. Modems and routers, smartphones, tablets, TV and streaming boxes, and, yes, even gaming consoles.
According to the report’s findings, the TIO’s recently revised Terms of Reference clarifies which types of complaints the TIO would consider assisting with. Per the report, it should help you if you have “a problem with telecommunications equipment supplied by a member, or with a member’s infrastructure, that affects the consumer’s access to a telecommunications service supplied or offered by a member.” This language would suggest that the TIO is expanding the range of equipment subject to its jurisdiction under the revised Terms of Reference.
Consumer groups thought this was great, stating they felt “that it is the Members that are making the decision to enter the retail market for such equipment and that Members should have responsibility for the equipment that they sell.” Members (aka telcos) disagreed, suggesting that the TIO was reaching well beyond its remit. In the members’ estimation, the TIO “should have limited jurisdiction over equipment,” and “suggested that the TIO was attempting a ‘land grab’, ‘being everything to everyone’.”
The report sums up the impasse rather neatly:
The issue at heart of this debate between Members and consumer groups is where should the boundary lie. That is, for what equipment sold or provided by Members should the TIO be able to accept complaints. Members want the boundary to be fairly tight while consumer groups want the boundary to be fairly loose.
Now, here’s the part where it gets really interesting: it seems the telcos got what they wanted. On page 97, the report lays out exactly which devices the TIO is prepared to help you with. According to the report, “equipment is within the TIO’s jurisdiction if it is purchased with a telecom service.” When they say “telecom service,” they mean ‘mobile phone plan’ or ‘home internet bundle’ — any service that can’t be used without specialist hardware like a smartphone or modem.
“If no associated telecom service was purchased but the equipment was a handset, mobile phone, tablet, modem or router, then a complaint will be considered by the TIO if the problem affects the consumer’s ability to access the telecom service,” the report continues. “Smart home devices, smart watches, drones, accessories such as headphones or ear buds, gaming consoles and laptops are specifically listed as items of equipment that the TIO will not expect to consider.”
That, of course, opens a kettle of worms because, these days, telcos in Australia are selling video game consoles on a contract that you could theoretically partner up with an internet bundle, if you were so inclined.
For instance, Telstra is Microsoft’s official partner in its Xbox All Access program. The idea is that you can get an Xbox Series X or Series S console on a contract, much the way you would a mobile phone handset. You pay a per-month fee ($33 for the Series S, $44 for the Series X) over 24 months, and you get a subscription to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for the duration. The idea, or at least what the idea was before the pandemic severely mucked with electronics manufacturing and supply chains, was that Xbox All Access users would either keep their console at the end of the 24-month contract, having paid it off, or upgrade to the newest version of the hardware, which should have arrived by then (it hasn’t).
But what happens if that Xbox breaks? Who is on the hook to repair or replace it? According to the Xbox All Access FAQ, it’s on Xbox, not Telstra. Faulty or malfunctioning Xboxes, even ones on a contract from a major telco, are still subject to the same Microsoft Limited Warranty as ones purchased outright. “Please note,” reads the fine print, unhelpfully, “monthly payments will continue until the remaining balance on your Telstra Account for Xbox All Access is paid in full, even if your Xbox console is not working.”
So, not only will neither Telstra nor the TIO help you if your Xbox is a lemon, Telstra is free to keep charging you while you wait for it to come back from the shop — which could also potentially be out of your own pocket if its issues are not covered by Microsoft’s limited warranty. And the TIO is cool with this because telcos like Telstra gaslit it into thinking this was fine, against the advice of consumer groups.
To summarise: We live in a bureaucratic hellscape.
I’ll let McBurnie and Williams sum it up:
The review team are concerned at the current position taken by the TIO in relation to these products. The boundary of what is, or is not, within its jurisdiction, does appear to be determined by what the industry was prepared to accept. Given the significant power imbalances that exist between Members and individual consumers this is disappointing.
You can read the full report here.