Telstra Nightmare


Most people have their own Telstra horror story. Mine is perhaps not equal to that of a friend who runs a computer and internet help business from home and was recently off the air for weeks with minimal recompense for lost custom. Or my sister, who despite living a few kilometres from a major regional centre has no prospect of access to any form of broadband in the foreseeable future.

But I suspect that my Telstra horror story is closer to the everyday experiences of many people attempting to deal with the huge, dysfunctional bureaucracy that the telco has become since privatisation. My story may provide them with the comfort of knowing they are not alone.

It began in late June with a phone call from a persuasive young Telstra salesman. Opening his spiel with a flattering comment about what a good Telstra customer I was, he proceeded to an impressive pitch for Telstra’s new ‘NextG’ mobile network.

I’m not usually susceptible to phone salespeople, and I already have a mobile phone service with another provider. However, I have had coverage problems at home (NSW Blue Mountains) and in other regional areas using my current mobile. So, given all the hype about NextG’s coverage, and some enticing inducements, I agreed to take up the offer. At no time was I told that there was a 10-day cooling off period, something I learned too late, sadly. The deal as far as I can recall (the salesman rattled through it at a great clip) was:

– a two-year contract at $20 a month, including the cost of the phone;
– $15 worth of ‘free’ calls a month (or was that a promised reduction in my home phone bill?);
 an hour a day of free calls to any other phone, using the mobile phone. This was appealing, as the majority of my calls are STD. The hour was to be nominated by me and I chose 5:00-6:00pm.

A few days later, a box arrived containing the mobile handset plus SIM card, accessories, an instruction book, and a single A4 page giving details of the phone itself, a guide to activating it, and a few contact numbers to use for such things as warranty claims and reporting lost phones. Despite my two long-held Telstra accounts, both my name and my address were misspelled on this document. There was no contract in the box.

Concerned at the lack of any document setting out what I had actually agreed to, I rang Telstra, gaily assuming it would be easy to rectify this.

This call now seems a harbinger of things to come: transferred from extension to extension and from section to section, I was obliged to explain five times what I was calling about. Finally, I was transferred to ‘the people who actually send out the phones.’

The man there seemed astonished at my inquiry: ‘Oh no, Telstra hasn’t sent out contracts for some years now.’ He suggested that I look at the website for details. This does not help: the range of options is such that it’s impossible to know what an individual contract might involve. (It also raises the question of where this leaves people without internet access. I know of at least three elderly people in my area who have been approached with this same sales pitch and are not online.)

This call, including hold time, lasted nearly one hour.

Meanwhile, I rang the number given to activate the new phone. A polite man, possibly in Bangalore or Delhi, on being told the number, assured me that it belongs to someone else. As calmly as I can, I pointed out that this is the number Telstra has sent me as the number for my new phone. He puts me on hold while he consults his supervisor (10 minutes). He returns to say that the phone has been re-activated under my name. (A number of subsequent mysterious messages suggest that the phone has indeed recently belonged to someone else.)

Total call time of this call: 30 minutes.

At last, I got to try out my spiffy new phone! The ‘free’ calls are limited to 20 minutes maximum, so I carefully watched the time as I caught up with friends in far-flung parts of the country. After a couple of days I started to notice that the handset was getting extremely hot so hot that I couldn’t hold it close to my face. Also, the battery was nearly empty after an hour of calls. Clearly, something was not right. I visited a local Telstra shop, where I was told that, because the phone was an ‘over-the-phone sale,’ it was nothing to do with them and I should ring the appropriate section of Telstra.

I rang Telstra repairs and explained the situation. They told me to ring the manufacturer. The manufacturer told me to ring Telstra as the phone was less than a month old. This call to Telstra involved transfers to three sections before someone agreed to replace the phone. Time taken: 25 minutes.

In mid-July a replacement phone turned up and I returned the faulty one in the reply-paid envelope provided. There are no instructions about the changeover but, luckily, I remember to remove the SIM card from the faulty phone and place it in the new one.

At 5:00pm, I settled down for my free hour of calls. After about 20 minutes the replacement phone too began to overheat. So did I.

I decided to wait a few days to calm down and think about what to do next.

But there was little time for contemplation, because in early August a bill arrived from Telstra: $439 for a mobile handset, plus $143 for calls made between 5:00 and 6:00pm (my nominated ‘free’ hour), less a mysterious $200 ‘credit.’ Another $3 for calls to Messagebank (to check messages which turned out to be for the previous owner of the number).

Total $409.58.

Blood pressure dangerously high.

Another lengthy call (45 mins) revealed that a) the handset charge was for the one I returned, which had not reached the relevant section before the bill was sent out (am I surprised?);  b) the salesman had assumed that I wanted my free calls not between 5:00-6:00pm but between 5:00-6:00am (as you would). Of course! Silly me.

I was none the wiser about the $200 credit unless it’s an advance on the home phone bill reduction that (I think) I was promised.

Telstra told me that a) and b) have been rectified, and that I would get a credit on my next bill. Was I confident? No.

Around this time, in the interests of avoiding a heart attack and/or a nervous breakdown, I decided to inquire about cancelling the phantom contract. I rang Telstra and told the whole story three times. First, to a woman who told me cancellation would cost $500 for the handset plus the $200 credit they’d already given me. She transferred me to a ‘sales consultant’ to discuss the faulty phone. He put me on hold to seek advice, transferred me to another consultant who said, ‘This happens all the time,’ and advised me to take the phone to a Telstra shop.

Interestingly, he let slip that, after three faulty phones, Telstra could ‘look at waiving the contract.’ Call time: 30 minutes.

I took the phone to an authorised Telstra dealer. He tested it, checked where I live, and informed me that the reason the phone was overheating and the battery depleting was that I am a long way from ‘the tower’ and the phone has to pump out a great deal of power to get reception. Why has no one mentioned this before?

By this time, I had passed through hysteria to resignation. I had no fight left in me. I decided to give the phone to my sister (the one without broadband) in the hope that it will be useful in her remoter area. She will use it with a pre-paid SIM card.

I am hoping that my further outlay will be limited to $480 for two years’ rental on a phone I will never use. Nevertheless, I remain apprehensive about future bills.

I hold no animus against Telstra staff they, particularly the Indian call centre people, were mostly polite and helpful, and often seemed as confused about the organisation as its hapless customers. Clearly, the right hand has no idea what the left is doing.

I am thinking about having a ritual burning of the original SIM card. It is also tempting to move my telecommunications accounts to another provider, but the thought of the chain reaction this may set off within the Telstra monster is too daunting to contemplate.

I have contented myself with writing this story in the hope it may be cautionary for others.

It’s been quite therapeutic, really.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.