ACCC needs to take a more human approach

There’s an old joke about a balloonist who having lost his way spotted a person walking along a road and descended to ask where he was. The response came back “You are 50 feet up in the air”. After a pause the balloonist shouts back: “You must be a lawyer!”. The man responds incredulously, “well as a matter in fact I am, that’s very perceptive of you!”. “Not really, the information you gave me was 100% accurate, but completely useless.”

The ACCC have recently requested Aussie Broadband to stop using the term “congestion free”. They considered this an absolute term and since every provider, no matter how well managed, sees some congestion (this is due to the way networks work), they should not be using this term.

“We were concerned that Aussie Broadband’s statements might lead consumers to believe that Aussie Broadband’s services would not ever experience congestion, when that was not the case,” ACCC chair Rod Sims said.

In other words they were concerned that consumers may be misled.

So what is congestion? Technically congestion is simply a data packet being discarded somewhere in the network because there is no room on the next link for it to continue on its journey. This packet loss (i.e. congestion) is quite normal, indeed it is used as a signalling system for the sender to slow down to avoid further congestion and we as normal humans beings rarely notice it. So no network can ever be completely “congestion free” in absolute terms unless it is not being used.

So that technical description is clearly completely useless in helping a consumer make a decision about which provider to choose. What the consumer wants to know is will my Netflix buffer while I’m watching it? I do not believe the ACCC’s ruling helps in this regard because it has taken a very legalistic, absolutist position.

As human beings we use absolutes all the time when we know they aren’t meant to be taken literally. For example when my wife complains that I “never take the trash out”, I am not going to get very far pointing out that she is wrong because I actually took it out at the beginning of last year after the New Year’s party.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not arguing that we be loose with our marketing language, but we should always ask what is the intent of the communication? If the intention is to mislead people then that is wrong. I like to ask my marketing team would “a moron in a hurry” be misled by this communication? Would they make a purchasing decision they came to regret based on this information?

I do not believe that any customers would be misled by this “congestion-free” claim. What Phil Britt at Aussie Broadband is basically saying is “you won’t experience congestion on our network!”.

If the ACCC is going to object to “congestion-free”, why does it also not object to the term “unlimited data”? Unlimited means “no limits”, none, i.e. infinity. Clearly no broadband connection is capable of downloading an infinite amount of data. But if you’re going to take an absolute, legalistic approach, then this is an issue. What about acceptable use policies talking about an ill-defined “reasonable use”? That’s a limit to downloading surely? At some point we just have to understand that this is all about human language not legal language.

Part of the problem here is that we are dealing with an industry (telco) that is full of sharp practices. Telcos were time and time again creating incentives for their sales staff to mislead customers into signing up for long contracts that were hard to get out of. Unfortunately the ACCC has very little visibility into what call centre sales staff say, this is why it took so long for them to catch Optus misleading customers into signing up with them on the basis they (incorrectly) had no choice. They therefore spend more time looking at published advertising because it is easier than looking at the areas where customers are much more often being misled.

It is important to note that Aussie Broadband has no contracts, is very open about its CVC usage and has a “stop-sell” policy when an area reaches 80% capacity, so I find it hard to believe that anyone would be misled – as in made a buying decision that they later regretted.

At Launtel we make a number of claims about our network, our support staff and our whole way of doing business. Some of these are not dissimilar to Aussie Broadband (we often recommend them when we can’t supply a service). Our intention is to never mislead, indeed if ever a customer tells us they misunderstood what we meant and made the wrong decision we generally reverse the transaction even if that ends up costing us money. We do this because we want our customers to feel safe and that they are not getting trapped into something.

However our most powerful “get out of jail free” card is our 7 day free trial. We tell people just to give our service a go – see what it’s actually like for them. At the end of the trial they really should have a very good idea of what they are getting before they hand over their credit card. Even then we only charge for a service on a daily basis, so if something changes, people can stop buying our service immediately – they can even get a refund of any unused “charge up”.

We also publish our bandwidth stats at https://launtel.net.au/cvc-usage so people have a very clear idea of what we are doing. We, like Aussie Broadband, are intending to be the new faces of an open and transparent telco industry.

We certainly intend that nobody on our network ever experiences congestion, indeed if we find any, we treat it as a fault. We believe for that all the purposes that human beings need the term “congestion-free” for, that fits the bill. It is unfortunate that the ACCC has now decided that it does not.

Damian Ivereigh
CTO Launtel