The clarification has come after local councillors in some of the seven regions about to be connected to the NBN pressed authorities on the issue following reports of confusion in Brunswick, the first Victorian locality to be switched over to the superfast digital service.
It also comes after the Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull released a discussion paper on a proposed migration assurance policy (MAP) and called for submissions to ensure migration to the new broadband network runs as smoothly as possible.
The regions on the verge of being hooked up include Bacchus Marsh, where civic leaders added their voice to concerns that some residents could suddenly find their old analogue services disconnected.
But NBN Co has confirmed that although it is responsible for running general information campaigns about the changeover, it is the responsibility of service providers to keep individual customers informed.
Telstra has also put its hand up, saying its aim is to contact customers up to 20 times before any existing service goes dead.
The other regions about to be connected to the NBN include Aspley in Queensland and Gosford in NSW, as well as South Hobart, Midway Point, Scottsdale and Smithton in Tasmania.
Paul Tatchell, the mayor of Moorabool Shire, which takes in Bacchus Marsh, said confusion and talk of disconnections in Brunswick had prompted “massive concerns” for his council.
“We explained to the residents that it’s like a hot and cold tap and that even if you don’t want the NBN, you’ve still got to get a new plumbing system.” — Mayor Paul Tatchell, Moorabool Shire
As a result, Moorabool Shire had ramped up its own education program, informing residents and businesses how to prepare for the changeover.
“We explained to the residents that it’s like a hot and cold tap and that even if you don’t want the NBN, you’ve still got to get a new plumbing system,” he said.
The council also lobbied NBN Co to ensure no cut-offs happened without due warning.
The final stage of transition to the broadband network typically occurs 18 months after the company designates an area ready for customers. At that point all residents are expected to be on the NBN network, with existing analogue services shut off.
According to NBN Co policy, anyone who has not “arranged to move by the advised date” will be disconnected from analogue services.
The seemingly rigid policy had left councillors in previous rollout areas concerned that many residents, unaware of the switchover procedure, could be disconnected without warning, in some cases rending inoperative vital security and health alert systems.
But a little understood part of the process is that individual households are not hooked up to NBN automatically.
Once residents find out the new system is available in their area, it is up to them to organise the connection by choosing a phone and Internet plan with a retail service provider.
The concerns had prompted Australia’s consumer watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, to declare that “safeguards exist to protect consumers that are facing disconnection”.
However, a lack of specific information about whose role it was to enforce safeguards had left some councillors unconvinced.
“It seems like a classic pass the buck situation that makes it especially difficult to work out. People lead very busy lives nowadays and people don’t have time to chase companies to work out what’s going on.” — Sue Bolton, Moreland City councillor
Moreland city councillor Sue Bolton said there was “considerable concern” for residents in rollout areas “in more precarious situations like the frail, mentally ill, elderly and non-English speaking”.
“It seems like a classic pass the buck situation that makes it especially difficult to work out,” she said. “People lead very busy lives nowadays and people don’t have time to chase companies to work out what’s going on.”
Since then, NBN Co has confirmed that, although it has “an oversight role ahead of the switch over”, it remains the responsibility of “Telcos and Internet providers [to] each manage the switchover of their customers”.
NBN Co added that Telstra “as the owner and the operator of the copper network co-ordinates the physical switching off”.
Telstra and iiNet, Australia’s two biggest service providers, agreed that it was ultimately their reposnibility to inform existing customers about the switch and for bringing them across to the broadband network. This held even if the customer chose not to stay with that provider once they had made the transition.
Telstra said in its submission to the government’s consultation paper: “We have been in frequent contact with our retail customers via letters, phone calls, home visits, media advertising and through a range of community information sessions . . . to ensure they are fully prepared for the change.”
According to both iiNet and Telstra, even after the switch-off deadline, customers would not be cut off without a last check.
iiNet’s NBN product manager, Rachael McIntyre, said the company understood that there was still a significant “knowledge gap” for customers and no-one had been cut-off without verbal confirmation.
“Disconnections have occurred in households which have upgraded to the NBN or have advised that they are going to be mobile-only, but unless they have been contacted and agreed to disconnect then they are in a process of case management,” she said.
Ms McIntyre said that something “certainly changed” after the first rollouts and service providers were more careful to “case manage rather than do hard disconnections”.
She said that iiNet was mindful that “there are still relatively large percentages of those populations that are not aware that both their Internet and phone line will be disconnected”.
Telstra and iiNet case managers were still working with customers in Brunswick.
But a final reckoning was inevitable, according to industry experts. If someone could not be contacted or failed after myriad warnings to decide whether to make the switch to broadband, they would eventually be cut off from the old copper network.