Should Your Phone Company Charge You During an Outage?


Outages are a lack of service – so why pay?

Outages happen, and there’s a good chance you’ve experienced them. You need to make a call or use your data plan, and then you realise you can’t connect. This can happen anywhere, but its more common in some areas than others.

For instance, urban areas receive the most attention from telcos because that’s where the bulk of customers are, so outages are typically less there; but rural areas, on the other hand, receive less attention from telcos and typically experience more outages than urban areas.

But in some cases, outages can strike all over equally. For instance, during the height of the coronavirus pandemic last year, Telstra and Optus experienced frequent outages as Australians flooded networks while staying at home and relying on their phone plans to stay connected to friends and family.

But while those outages didn’t cause much concern, what about outages that hinder emergency responders? For instance, during the bush fires, some rural areas experienced outages that prevented communication with first responders, and fire fighters also experienced outages that hindered communication with each other. Now, that should certainly be concerning.

So considering such circumstances, should your phone company be able to charge you during an outage? Liberal MP Julian Leeser says No, and he has put a bill forward to ban such a practice.

What’s in the bill and why

Here’s a look at some of what’s included in Mr. Leeser’s bill:

  • Ban Telstra from buying the NBN
  • Ban telcos for charging during outages
  • Ban telcos from turning off their 3G networks until they can guarantee strong 4G and 5G coverage throughout the country.

Mr. Leeser represents Berowra. The area includes parts of Northern Sydney that are known for network blackouts. Mobile phone reception in those areas have not improved, and have been pretty bad for years now.

Mr. Leeser points to the recent bushfires as an example of how network outages can affect people’s lives – in fact, according to him, “It’s only a matter of time before we lose lives.” Perhaps that isn’t much of an exaggeration – the MP pointed out that firefighters identified over 70 black spots during the bushfires, which hindered communication and could prevent one from getting help or the effort to give help.

Mr. Leeser also pointed out that the service in the area is so bad that the Hills Council won’t allow staff to go into the hills without two-way radios for communication – because mobile service there is so unreliable.

The network issues aren’t just a problem for firefighters and council staff – residents and businesses are feeling it too, and perhaps even more, hence the MP pushing for change for his constituents. For instance, Hornsby Hospital clinical director of surgery Dr Philip Middleton recalled the difficulties faced at the hospital, where registras have to go outside the hospital just to place a call to doctors because there is no coverage inside the hospital. He added that they had handed Telstra $300,000 two or three years ago to mount a tower and solve the outages, but Telstra still has not delivered to date.

Dr. Middleton also said he doesn’t have any mobile reception in his home, which hinders telehealth services and any kind of important remote work like viewing x-rays.

So under such circumstance, should customers still have to pay their phone bill in full when they can’t even receive the service outlined in their phone plans?

Telstra’s response

Mr. Leeser seems to be targeting Telstra the most, despite the fact that Telstra has the largest rural coverage thanks to its 3G network. And while all telcos could make an effort to mount towers in the area, Telstra has actually made the most efforts to do so.

According to the MP, he wrote Telstra CEO Andy Penn last year to address these same concerns. In response, Telstra sought approval to build two towers to improve the service in the area. However, local council members keep refusing to approve the towers, and so far, only one tower has been approved to move forward.

Telstra have attempted several towers in Berowra, but the struggle to get approved has hindered the process. In fact, The Hills Shire Council Planning Panel just issued a recommendation that a proposed tower in Glenhaven should be denied.

Considering this, Telstra is questioning Mr. Leeser’s bill. Mr. Penn has suggested that the MP’s own government is the cause of any problems that the MP is trying to lay blame on telcos for. Mr. Penn suggested that, if anyone is in a position to fix the problem, it is Mr. Leeser, whose local council has been preventing Telstra from building towers in the area.

Final words – Should telcos charge during outages?

Telstra has several points – after all, they have made attempts to improve coverage in Mr. Leeser’s area while local council members block those attempts. However, Telstra fails to address the question of why they charge during outages. Perhaps in an area that hardly has any reception when indoors, not charging for outages would mean hardly even charging at all – because indoors, there is almost always an outage.

Telstra also plans on shutting off 3G by 2023. But will the telco’s 4G and 5G network coverage be as strong as current 3G networks in rural areas? Will there be even more outages? Will customers be asked to pay for those outages? It’s never fair for customers to pay for a service they don’t receive, and the same applies here. Perhaps with Mr. Leeser’s bill, both telcos and local councils will realize how real the issue of outages is and work together to solve it.


Neil Aitken

Having worked in 3 countries for 4 telcos on both voice and data products, Neil is in a position to give you the inside track. Get beyond the marketing messages to the best plan for you.