Consumer vulnerability: ACMA sets its expectations for telcos

Joel von Thien, Doug Thompson and Natalie Antoon
09 Jun 2022
Time to read: 2 minutes

On 24 May 2022, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) released its Statement of Expectations to clarify what is expected of telcos when interacting with vulnerable consumers, at all stages of the customer relationship.

In 2022 telecommunications are well and truly an essential service for all Australians. Reliable internet, mobile and telephone connections allow Australians to access opportunities for work, education, and health and government services. It is no surprise that protecting vulnerable telco customers is one of ACMA’s top compliance priorities for FY2022.

In May 2022, ACMA released a Statement of Expectations for the telecommunications industry to improve outcomes for consumers in vulnerable circumstances who may experience barriers to accessing and maintaining telecommunications products and services. The Statement of Expectations is not a compliance or enforcement tool, but sets out expectations and key outcomes for telcos, with many practical examples on how they can achieve better practices. With more Australians facing vulnerable circumstances, particularly due to the recent impacts of the pandemic and natural disasters, this guidance is timely.

ACMA’s Statement: identifying vulnerability

A person experiencing or at risk of experiencing vulnerability has barriers accessing, engaging with, or maintaining telecommunications products and services. Such barriers may be circumstances which are:

  • event-based – eg. death of a loved one, natural disasters, job loss, domestic or family violence;
  • personal or social – eg. disability, low income, speaking a primary language other than English, remote location, limited access to digital technologies, different cultural backgrounds;
  • market-based – eg. culture of incentivised sales, complex or confusing products, information is difficult to understand and not easily accessible.

Vulnerability can be temporary, long-term or permanent. Consumers may not disclose that they are vulnerable, so telcos need to be attuned to indicators or circumstances which may lead to vulnerability. This may involve training staff to recognise and respond appropriately.

ACMA’s Statement: outcomes and expectations

Five priority areas are identified for telcos to focus on, which encompass all stages of the customer lifecycle; ACMA expects them to meet the outcomes and expectations for each priority area. While ACMA provides many examples in its Statement on methods to achieve these outcomes, the way telcos go about doing so is at their discretion.

1. Culture and practices

Outcome: embed a culture that encourages increased focus and support for identifying, interacting with and helping consumers experiencing (or at risk of) vulnerability.


  1. Show executive or senior management oversight of development and implementation of better practices;
  2. Implement appropriate systems, processes, policies and procedures to identify and support vulnerable customers;
  3. run regular and specific training on practices above for staff who interact with vulnerable consumers;
  4. encourage staff to advise management of any deficiencies in practices; and
  5. make internal policies on vulnerability available on request.

2. Selling and contracting

Outcome: consumers are sold products appropriate to their needs and circumstances.


  1. Incentivise staff to make relevant enquiries to help consumers express their needs, for example by discussing affordability;
  2. support staff to be proactive in making consumers aware of affordable products and services which meet their needs; and
  3. disincentivise staff from inappropriately upselling.

3. Customer service

Outcome: An accessible and inclusive telecommunications market where Telcos understand, identify and assist consumers who may benefit from additional or specialised support.


  1. Have inclusive and accessible customer service communications options;
  2. Help customers self-identify as vulnerable and use systems to proactively identify customers as vulnerable;
  3. Offer support or referrals to support services, for example financial counselling; and
  4. Make websites and apps compliant with accessibility guidelines.

4. Financial hardship

Outcome: Telcos are supportive of consumers struggling with their bills so they can maintain access to their services.


  1. Help customers self-identify as vulnerable and offer support;
  2. Provide access to dedicated, specialised and timely customer service;
  3. Select financial hardship arrangement best suited to the individual and authorise staff to tailor arrangements;
  4. offer flexible contracts such as moving to cheaper options, or cancellation at minimal/no cost;
  5. minimise the use of restrictions that prevent customers accessing their telco services;
  6. support staff with training and information on financial hardship arrangements;
  7. approve access to financial hardship arrangements, except where there is clear evidence a customer can pay their debt without such arrangements; and
  8. monitor repayments and proactively respond to indicators of vulnerability for a customer.

5. Credit/debt management and disconnection

Outcome: Credit and debt management processes are fair, accurate, flexible, and proportionate, with disconnection as a last resort.


  1. Approach credit management and debt collection with sensitivity to customer circumstances;
  2. suspend credit management action while considering the customers financial situation, and work with customers to find a suitable solution;
  3. keep customers connected wherever possible;
  4. ensure customers facing disconnection have been offered all reasonable options;
  5. ensure vulnerable customers are not prevented from contracting new services after disconnection; and
  6. take further steps to make sure health or safety concerns requiring access have been mitigated before disconnection.


ACMA’s Statement provides a timely reminder for telcos to check their practices are not only legally compliant, but are in line with ACMA's – and consumers' – expectations.

Existing telco obligations

Telcos are already subject to the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCP Code), which requires them to meet minimum standards to protect vulnerable and disadvantaged customers. For example, ensuring its customer-facing staff can communicate appropriately with vulnerable consumers, and implementing policies for customers experiencing financial hardship which allow more flexible and tailored payment options. The Australian Consumer Law (ACL) also applies to telcos, and prohibits misleading, deceptive and unconscionable conduct. Despite this framework of consumer protection obligations, Telcos practices show room for improvement in their treatment of vulnerable consumers.

Room for telco improvement

The Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) found in its May 2021 report that telco selling practices are not always responsible, advertising information does not always cover key terms, online product information is hard to find, and consumers sometimes unknowingly sign up for products they do not need.

These issues were recently highlighted in ACCC v Telstra Corporation Limited [2021] FCA 502 where the Federal Court ordered Telstra to pay $50 million in pecuniary penalties for engaging in unconscionable conduct because retail staff had signed up over 100 Indigenous customers to post-paid mobile contracts that they did not fully understand or could not afford. Telstra’s staff misrepresented products as free, didn’t explain the potential costs of the contracts, and manipulated credit assessments so that consumers who would have otherwise failed them were able to buy post-paid products. These actions exploited the language and cultural vulnerabilities of the customers. Telstra later waived their debts or provided refunds to remedy its conduct.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.