Signing up to a long-term mobile phone plan is a decision that requires some consideration. Even though you’re keen to get home and rip the plastic off of your new smartphone, it pays to take your time in choosing the right plan and making sure that your chosen provider can give you the service you need — especially when it comes to coverage.
But what happens when you get home with a new phone and discover that your service is unusable? If your new phone is faulty you can get a replacement, but if you have no reception at home (and anywhere you regularly go) the problem is a little more complex.
If you’ve done your homework before signing up for a new phone plan then you are in a much better position to resolve a dispute over service, have your contract canceled without penalty, or avoid these problems altogether.
Mobile phone plans, like all consumer service agreements, are covered by Australian Consumer Law and come with a few implicit rights for you as the consumer. Broadly speaking, there are two general principles which will help decide whether a mobile provider is required to let you cancel your contract and walk away:
- If the service is ‘unfit for the purpose’ that you should reasonably expect it to provide
- If the company (salesperson) made ‘false or misleading claims’ about the service
As you can see, the wording is fairly vague, especially the phrase ‘unfit for the purpose’, but both elements together provide a clearer picture of when you might have a reasonable case to terminate your contract. For example, if when signing up for a new plan the salesperson tells you that your home and work are covered by the network (usually by looking up your address using an online coverage map) but it turns out you have no reception, then this is something the telco will need to discuss with you.
Even still, you should be prepared to talk this through with your provider and not expect your new contract to be cancelled immediately. Your telco may want to try and remedy the problem before cancelling the contract. A billing problem might be met with a discount or credit, or you might be offered a signal booster if you find you have poor indoor coverage.
Vodafone’s Network Happiness Guarantee
Vodafone Australia is the only telco which explicitly offers a network guarantee, offering to cancel contracts within 30 days if new customers are not satisfied with the service on offer. The offer is pretty generous and the terms and conditions are common sense;
- You have to return new devices in original packaging (including chargers and headphones etc) within 10 days of calling to cancel your contract
- You have to pay for your phone and service from the first day up until the day you return everything, plus any charges for things that aren’t included in your plan (like calls to premium services)
- You don't a refund for anything else you bought when you signed up, like Bluetooth earphones or phone cases, as part of the Guarantee
- You can only make one Network Guarantee claim per year
Get to know the TIO
The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) is your last resort if negotiations fail to satisfy the dispute between you and your telco.
The TIO is an independent organisation dedicated to resolving disputes in the telco industry. Whether you are having a problem with your mobile phone plan or broadband service provider, the TIO is ready to help — so long as you’ve tried to resolve the problem by negotiating with your telco first.
Taking your dispute to the TIO isn’t a silver bullet, of course. You will need to provide documentation supporting your claim (receipts, written correspondence) and then the TIO will continue the negotiations and try to find a solution.
The TIO hosts a great resource on its website explaining the way it deals with a number of common faults and problems. With disputes about mobile network coverage and speed disputes it says:
"If the TIO receives a complaint about mobile coverage, we will consider matters such as:
- the extent to which the consumer is able to use or derive any benefit from the service
- the accuracy of the information about speed or coverage given to the consumer at point of sale (for example, was the consumer shown a coverage map or guaranteed coverage in certain areas?)
- any representations the provider made about the quality of service the consumer would receive.
We will also consider matters such as:
- if the consumer specifically told the provider where and how they would be using the service
- where the consumer is trying to use the service
- if the consumer has moved
- if the standard of service has changed.
When the quality of a consumer’s service does not meet the quality that was promoted or promised at the point of sale it may be reasonable for a provider to consider either releasing the consumer from contract without exit fees, or reducing the service charges to match the drop in quality."
Cooling off periods for phone plan contracts?
A ‘cooling off period’ is a term used to describe a short period at the beginning of a contract where the buyer may decide that it was a bad idea to enter a contract and is eligible to cancel it. For individuals a standard cooling off period is 10 days.
With a two-year phone plan, you might think that a cooling off period should apply, but according to Australian Consumer Law, the option to change your mind applies only when a salesperson has approached you. This covers door-to-door salespeople, unsolicited phone calls and someone who approaches you in a shopping centre, for example.
There is no cooling off period when you approach a telco, either by walking into a store, calling a sales rep or purchasing online.
What to do before signing up for a new phone plan
To avoid all of the frustration of cancelling a new phone plan, your best bet is to research your target telco provider before signing on for a multi-year contract.
Before you sign we recommend:
- Testing the service with a Prepaid plan or Monthly SIM plan. These stand-alone SIM cards can be bought at convenience stores, service stations and supermarkets, are cheap to buy and you can cancel these plans at any time. Stick the SIM card in your old phone and test it home, at your office, in the cafes you like to visit, etc. Telco coverage maps are great tools but can never tell the whole story.
- Road test your new phone too, if possible. Consumer law doesn’t cover you if you change your mind about your new phone, so try and play with one before you buy and be sure you like the way it works.
- Consider buying your new phone outright. This is an expensive option, but it means you avoid signing long term contracts altogether. Telcos may not sell your phone outright, so look to electronic retailers.
This may sound like a bunch of extra work, but the piece of mind from knowing that you are getting what you pay for is worth it in the long run.