Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ACMA submission on wholesaler data usage

I've just made a submission to the Australian Communications and Media Authority regarding the 48 hour data usage reporting delay that mobile service wholesalers like Optus impose on their wholesale customers. This can lead to incredibly huge bills with no warning and no way to prevent the bill as part of the service.

The TCP ACMA bill shock provisions that came out of the RTC enquiry were supposed to prevent this, but left a huge loophole by permitting "up to" 48 hours delay in usage alerts and reporting. Optus, at least, appears to treat this as "at least 48 hours", failing to report usage until the 48 hour time. It was a limit, not a target, Optus.

The spend management alerts were supposed to be implemented by small providers by September 2014, but they have the same 48 hour exception:

Spend management
  • Suppliers to send notification alerts of data, voice calls and SMS usage within included value plans no later than 48 hours after the customer has reached data usage and expenditure thresholds of 50, 85 and 100 per cent.
  • Suppliers to include additional notification information about charges applying to included value plans when the customer has exceeded 100 per cent of data or expenditure usage

Industry players are seem to be using this to bypass the intent of the code, which was to provide "access to timely, accurate and comprehensible information about their service"

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Attn: ACMA telecommunications code of practice (TCP) officers

I'm writing with regards to recent dealings I have had with iiNet in their role as a reseller of the Optus network for mobile service.

Despite the fact that the major carriers are now required to offer (but not automatically enable) data usage alerts to their customers, it appears that they are NOT required to do this for their wholesale customers.

This means that iiNet gets information on customer data service usage 48 hours after Optus collects it, because Optus delays it by the maximum amount currently permitted under ACMA regulations.

iiNet can therefore not alert customers who accidentally or unwittingly use data beyond their usage cap.

Extremely high spend levels are possible before the customer has any idea anything is wrong. The 48 hour delay is completely incompatible with current mobile network speeds. Look at four different data rates: A typical 3G data rate of 4.6Mbit/s, a practically achievable speed I've routinely seen myself of 16MBit/s, a "background usage" rate typical for things like Skype of 0.035MBit/s, and a typical 4G speed of 21MBit/s (same article; Telstra 50MBit is possible). At these rates, spends per minute, hour, and day are:

ServiceSpeed (MBit/s)Speed(MByte/s)$/MB$/min$/hour$/day
3G typical4.60.5750.05$1.75$103$2484
3G fast1620.05$6$360$8640
4G typical212.60.05$7.87$472.5$11340
Slow background chatter0.270.0350.05$0.10$6.3$151.2

A user could easily accumulate over a $10,000 bill by leaving their phone tethered to their laptop overnight while a malfunctioning auto-updater program repeatedly retried a failing download - and they would have no way of detecting this or preventing it, finding out only two days later. Lest this seem like a hypothetical scenario that couldn't happen in reality, I've had exactly this happen on my ADSL service, where it only resulted in the service's speed being throttled for the rest of the month.

In February, leaving Skype running while I worked all day (my best guess as to what happened, since there's no detailed information) plus light web browsing cost me around $430 over two days, with no warning whatsoever. On a $20 mobile plan.

I received notices alerting me of this usage ... two days after it was already spent.

iiNet cannot cut off a service as soon as it exceeds its limit or immediately warn the user because Optus withholds the information it needs to do so.

I cannot help but wonder if Optus is intentionally withholding and delaying this information in order to increase the amount it collects from lucrative data usage excess charges. It is clearly technically capable of supplying the information, since it must generate the same information for its own direct customers in order to offer them the timely alerts ACMA now requires it to offer to direct customers. Optus can also cut prepaid users off with megabyte accuracy, and does so, since doing so profits Optus.

To me, Optus appears to be abusing the loophole in the current ACMA regulations that lets it delay usage reporting to wholesalers.

I would like to see ACMA address this issue with Optus and the other providers, improving its current bill shock provisions to require near-real-time reporting of usage alerts to wholesale customers as well as direct customers.

I have engaged directly with iiNet on this, but they do not control the delay Optus imposes on data reporting, so they cannot offer more timely alerts until Optus gives them the information they need.


Craig Ringer


Update: Telstra now offer real-time alerts to first-party customers (but ACMA doesn't require this, and it's unclear whether it's passed on to wholesalers).

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