The ACCC has granted interim authorisation allowing the NBN, Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, TPG and Vocus to collaborate to keep telecommunications and networks operating effectively during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
At the request of Mitch Fifield, minister for communications these six organisations have formed a group to share information, coordinate strategies to manage congestion and take other steps to address significant demand changes caused by COVID-19.
The consumer watchdog said it will be an observer on the special working group.
According to the ACCC, the five telcos and NBN Co have also sought urgent authorisation to provide support for consumers and small business customers experiencing financial difficulties as a result of COVID-19.
The ultimate aim is to ensure that consumers are able to stay connected to communications services throughout the pandemic, the ACCC noted.
Rod Sims, ACCC chair said, “Online services and connections are now more important than ever, as Australians seek to stay productive and engaged, undertake homeschooling, telehealth and access other services. The ability to do all this will also assist people to comply with increasingly strict social distancing measures.
“As it has with a number of industries already, the ACCC stands ready to assist telecommunications providers with approval of any coordinated measures that are urgent and necessary during this crisis.”
Some Australian retail service providers are not members of the special working group. As a condition of the authorisation, NBN Co must quickly inform the ACCC and non-member service providers about any material decisions made by the working group that may affect them.
ACCC authorisation provides legal protection from court action for conduct that might otherwise raise concerns under the competition provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
Competition replaced by cooperation
This is not the first group of competitors the ACCC has allowed to collaborate. The ACCC has given the green light for a number of competitors to work together including Woolworths and Coles, Regional Express and other airlines and medicine wholesalers.
Earlier this week during an AFR Banking and Wealth webcast, Sims said the watchdog is working with businesses across the economy to authorise cooperation between competitors to enable them to support the community and survive this crisis.
He said, “At a time of crisis such as in war or with a pandemic there is a common enemy to fight for the nation’s survival, and so a sense of national purpose [and] coordination is both efficient and carries little or no downside.”
However important it is to work together during the hard times, Sims said in normal times without common enemy coordination leads to “complacency, inefficiency and higher prices”.
“It is important that these short-term measures do not give rise to long-term structural damage to competition, market concentration or long-term arrangements that make it more difficult for businesses to enter and compete into the future,” he said.
The ACCC has a COVID-19 Taskforce which monitors and gathers daily intelligence about emerging issues and working to ensure consumers understand their rights when dealing with cancelled events, travel or services.