Government Funds Lifeline, But Vital Services Still Costing Consumers
29 June 2011 at 4:57 pm
|Flickr image by user timparkinson via creative commons|
Mobile phone calls to Lifeline – the national telephone-based support service for people in crisis – are set to become free of charge under an agreement made between three major phone carriers and the Federal Government.
But consumer advocacy groups say the move isn’t enough, and that telco’s must stop charging expensive per-minute rates for customers to call essential services and government agencies.
The joint agreement between the nation’s 3 major mobile phone carriers – Telstra, Optus and Vodafone Hutchison Australia – means that from July 1st, people calling Lifeline’s national crisis line (13 11 14) from a mobile wont be charged.
The federal government is providing $18.2 million over three years to Lifeline to boost the capacity of the organisation to respond to more calls and to support free calls from mobiles.
Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, Mark Butler, thanked the carriers for agreeing to abolish call charges, and says the arrangement will also be passed through to the downstream resellers of the three carriers’ mobile services.
Butler says each year more than 114,000 calls to Lifeline’s national crisis line are made from mobiles and more than 40 calls every day come from people at high risk of suicide.
Lifeline CEO Dr Maggie Jamieson says that the costs associated with calling Lifeline from a mobile has acted as a significant deterrent to help-seekers in the past.
Dr Jamieson says the Commonwealth’s financial assistance will allow people to call Lifeline’s crisis line from their mobile handset with the knowledge that they can speak freely about their emotional crisis, without a looming future financial burden.
Consumer advocacy group ACCAN has welcomed the move, but says telecommunication providers need to stop charging customers expensive per-minute rates for 13,1300, 1800 calls to essential services, government agencies and businesses.
ACCAN says there are thousands of vital 13 and 1800 numbers that many Australians are finding to expensive to call from mobiles.
ACCAN is campaigning to change what is calls ‘back-end deals’ that exist between the telcos so that the cost of calling 13 and 1800 numbers from mobiles is the cost of a local call and a free call respectively – as they are from landlines.
ACCAN spokesperson Elise Davidson says today’s announcement effectively means the Government is paying the telcos the money they would have been charging their mobile customers.
Davidson says it’s a piecemeal approach that looks at one important phone number, but they need to start working towards a much broader solution that provides fair calls for all.
She says there are literally thousands of 13/1800 numbers – from Centrelink, Medicare, Kids Helpline, gambling and domestic violence helplines to banks, insurance companies, energy and telecommunications providers – and they’re all important to the people that call them.
ACCAN says at the moment both the caller and the called party are being charged for these calls, i.e. the business or government agency is paying to receive the call at one end and the consumer is paying at the other.
Davidson says at the moment, the telco industry is turning an untold profit from double-dipping due to old regulation that was introduced in 1997 when the way we communicated was very different – most people had landlines and mobile phones were seen as a bit of a luxury due to higher call costs.
The Lifeline national crisis line is 13 11 14 (now free from all phones) and the Lifeline website can be found here : http://www.lifeline.org.au/
For more information on the ACCAN campaign, visit www.accan.org.au/numberwoman