Vodafone broadband customers left in dark over rights by company and watchdog
Vodafone customers are in the dark over whether they can terminate their fixed-term broadband contracts when the company turns off its email service at the end of November.
Neither Vodafone nor the country's competition watchdog, the Commerce Commission, have been able to provide definitive advice on customers' rights, with the commission saying the issue was "not black and white".
Vodafone will turn off its email service, which is regularly used by about 250,000 of its customers, at the end of November.
It has suggested customers set up a free email account with either Google Gmail or Microsoft Outlook, and has promised to automatically forward email free-of-charge to their new address.
However, Google has so far been unable to confirm that the forwarding of mail couldn't be impacted by the high levels of spam some Vodafone customers have been receiving.
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Several Vodafone customers have said their email address was the major reason for them sticking with Vodafone and have questioned whether the withdrawal of the service gives them the right to switch to a different broadband supplier.
Vodafone customers can be on contracts with fixed terms of either one or two years.
Vodafone would not say whether it considered the withdrawal of the email service entitled customers to exit their fixed-term broadband contracts early.
"We are encouraging customers to call us to talk through any concerns they have with their service," spokeswoman Elissa Downey said.
The Commerce Commission also did not provide a clear response on consumers' rights.
"Consumers will be on a range of different contracts," a spokeswoman said.
"We advise customers to look into their contract to see under which circumstances they can terminate early at no cost.
"If consumers feel the removal of the email service will cause them detriment, they should contact Vodafone to discuss their options in the first instance," she said.
However, the commission appeared to hint that it thought customers that wanted to leave without penalty might have a case, sending a link to a "fact sheet" that discusses unfair contract terms.
One of the questions the fact sheet suggests customers ask themselves when considering whether a contract might be unfair is whether businesses can change "important terms of the contract without your permission, or without letting you cancel the contract".
The commission would not provide further clarification.
Some Vodafone customers have experienced high levels of spam in recent months, which is one reason the company is closing its email service.
Vodafone will forward spam along with legitimate emails to customers' new email addresses when it turns off its email service. Microsoft indicated there was no risk that high levels of spam might cause it to block all emails forwarded to Outlook customers' via Vodafone's relay.
The company said in a statement that emails relayed from Vodafone would not be treated any differently to other incoming mail and would be evaluated by its spam filters "individually".
Vodafone has said Google has also provided it with a reassurance that legitimate forwarded emails would get through to Gmail. But Google has not been able to confirm that mail-forwarding couldn't be impacted by the volume of relayed spam, after confirmation was sought from the company on Monday.
A Google spokesman said he was still trying to get information from the company's technical experts.
Consumer NZ chief executive Sue Chetwin said the question of whether Vodafone customers had the right to walk away from their broadband contracts had come up for discussion at the consumer body and it was still wrestling with the issues.
"You would think that Vodafone would have to fall on the side of helping consumers out here and if you had decided you were desperate to hold on to your address you should be allowed out of your contract."
But it was "a tricky one" because Vodafone was probably right to be getting out of providing email, she said.
About 60 per cent of respondents to a Stuff poll last week said they believed internet providers should continue to provide email as a service, but 30 per cent said they need not. The poll, which attracted more than 5000 votes, is not scientific.