Australians struggling to pay their phone and internet bills have been thrown a lifeline, with new rules to make it mandatory for telcos to do more to provide financial hardship assistance.

An Australian Communications and Media Authority report from last year found 2.4 million Australian adults had experienced financial difficulty paying, or had concerns about their phone and internet bills, in the previous 12 months.

Comparatively, fewer than 5000 residential customers had financial hardship arrangements in place.

The new industry standard, which will come into effect by March 29, will require telcos to do more to proactively identify customers experiencing financial hardship, and prioritise keeping them connected to services.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland said with more and more Australians struggling with cost-of-living, it was imperative companies did their bit to ensure their customers could stay connected.

“In 2024, staying connected is an essential part of everyday life. It’s how Australians keep in touch with loved ones, run businesses, and engage with government,” she said.

“That’s why it’s critical telcos do all they can to keep customers connected when they are experiencing difficulties paying their bills. This new industry standard will mean Australian consumers and small businesses are better supported by telcos when they need it most.”

The new code broadens the definition of financial hardship to capture a wider set of circumstances; and requires telcos to offer financial hardship customers a minimum of six different options of assistance – including payment plans and the option to extend or defer payment.

It also strengthens protections for customers facing credit management action, including more stringent requirements before a customer can be disconnected, and an extended disconnection notice period up from five working days to 10.

ACMA chair Nerida O’Loughlin, said the new rules addressed “a range” of identified gaps in supporting Australians.

“Telcos must do a better job at identifying those in need of payment assistance, and provide a stronger range of support options.

“Telecommunications services are essential to everyday living and at a time when a lot of Australians are doing it tough, it’s important customers are provided with real support to keep their services connected.”

ACMA will be monitoring compliance, and will be given strong, immediate enforcement options for telcos found to have breached the rules.

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