Ringing the changes: Gemma Papadimitriou, 4, presses the NBN button in Brunswick to mark the switch-off of Telstra's copper lines. Not all unconnected premises will be switched off. Photo: David Crossling
Australia's consumer watchdog has stepped in to ensure people who depend on their landlines will not be disconnected on Friday as planned under national broadband network arrangements.
Under the original agreement between Telstra and the NBN Co, premises located where the new fibre-optic network was ready for service were to be switched off Telstra's copper lines within 18 months.
This required affected residents and businesses to order a new NBN service before the May 23 deadline.
Hundreds of elderly and vulnerable residents in 15 of the first switch-off communities risked being left without working landline phone and internet connections because they were unaware or unable to arrange for new services.
On Thursday the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission moved to reassure customers and their families that little-known provisions in Telstra's contract would provide continuity of service until October 2014. NBN Co later said vulnerable consumers would have their case managed until October 2014, others should ring their provider to switch services immediately.
ACCC Commissioner Cristina Cifuentes said the watchdog "wishes to clarify that safeguards exist to protect consumers that are facing disconnection".
"Under these revised arrangements, Telstra and other service providers are to case-manage their end users over the next six months, with end-user services being disconnected over that period where the end user does not wish to migrate to the NBN.
"Consequently, end users will have an additional opportunity to order an NBN service and keep their copper and HFC services until the NBN service is activated. However, they should place their order as soon as they are able to do so."
The first switch-offs are set to occur in 15 communities: Armidale, Minnamurra and Kiama Downs in NSW; South Morang and Brunswick in Victoria; Townsville, Aitkenvale and Mundingburra in Queensland; Willunga in South Australia; and Deloraine, George Town, Kingston Beach, Sorell, St Helens and Triabunna in Tasmania.
NBN Co said from 19,000 potentially affected premises, the majority had already switched or ordered a new service. Others should place an order with their telco provider on Thursday. But concerned residents said not enough had been done to inform people about the cut-off date or to help them shift to the NBN service.
NBN Co spokesman Trent Williams said a "comprehensive communication campaign" including advertising and door-to-door service calls had been conducted.
But Orlando Bigtas, a 73-year-old Brunswick resident and president of the Moreland Filipino Social Support Group, said although residents had received letters, they were only in English, so many of Brunswick’s large non-English-speaking population may not have understood them.
Mr Bigtas said even those senior citizens who know they need to switch might struggle to work out the details of “complicated NBN plans”.
He had not received a door-to-door visit or been reached by a community information session.
Some residents fear there is no systematic process to verify who is connected and who is not before the switch-off takes place.
Gursharan Mann, public officer for the Sikh Senior Citizens Society of Whittlesea, said many members in South Morang "don’t know anything” about the switch off.
Mr Mann is worried about those living alone. “If they need to use the phone and it’s not working, it could be a disaster,” he said.
Moreland councillor Sue Bolton said she was concerned about the many “vulnerable residents” who are not just elderly but are incapacitated, isolated from their neighbours, do not have regular visitors or contact with relatives, or only have a landline.
“I have a feeling that when D-day hits, it’ll be quite a crisis in a lot of households," she said. "People will be switched off without even knowing it."
NBN Co held a switch-off ceremony in Brunswick on Thursday and urged people to contact their current service provider to place an order for a new service.
The ACCC hosed down the panic. It told Fairfax Media "end users will not be disconnected [on Friday] unless they have confirmed to their service provider that they do not wish to migrate to the NBN, and that they understand their copper lines will be disconnected."
“Now is the time for consumers and businesses to decide whether they want to continue to use a home phone or fixed-line internet service and contact their preferred provider to place an order for NBN services if they do," Commissioner Cifuentes said.
UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, an NBN Co spokesman insisted the switch-off was on track and consumers who had not contacted their service provider would receive a phone call to ascertain whether they wanted to order a new service or preferred to be disconnected.
Later Commissioner Cifuentes told Fairfax Media her understanding was that those who had not yet ordered a service, and had not yet agreed to be disconnected would not be cut off.
Fairfax Media understands the parties disagree on a blanket October 2014 extension.
"We'd encourage you to make a decision sooner rather than later. But you do have some time," she said.
with Lia Timson