One of the main areas of dispute between the networks and consumers in the telecommunications sector is billing. This is evident in the recent report by the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman, Otelo, which showed that 40% of the complaints it received between 2007 and 2008 were related to disputed charges.
As a solicitor, my advice to the consumer is to ensure you know the true cost of using a service before incurring the charges. Too many consumers take a blasé approach to their mobile usage and do not have an idea of the costs they have incurred until they receive the bill.
However, education of the consumer is a joint responsibility. The providers of these services should be aware that customers are often uninformed of all the charges they may incur, and they often do not have adequate access to information to enable them to monitor their usage.
This is especially true in the case of mobile data. The great majority of consumers do not have a grasp of megabytes, or how many of them are going to be downloaded if they want to buy a music track on their phone or view their emails, let alone the cost per megabyte when they are at home compared with roaming abroad.
The providers for postpay customers also need to recognise that they are providing an unlimited credit facility with a pay-monthly bill and that this is a financial risk to both themselves and the consumer, particularly with the high costs of data roaming charges. The consumer is left vulnerable as a result of the lack of education and limitless credit.
In the situations when consumers receive an unexpectedly high bill, they may not have the resources available to repay this and, as a result, may be pursued through the courts or threatened with bankruptcy. Where there are no assets for the creditor to pursue, they may lose thousands of pounds in profit, although it is likely that others will, in fact, bear the brunt.
The industry needs to consider the ways that other credit providers are regulated under legislation such as the Consumer Credit Act and the Financial Services and Markets Act, and adapt their policies accordingly.
These acts encourage responsible credit provision to achieve important objectives, such as market confidence, consumer awareness and protection of the consumer. These are objectives that the telecoms sector needs to focus on if it wants consumers to use services such as mobile data, which some customers currently seem hesitant to use due to their lack of understanding about the service and cost.
If the providers made these changes, they are likely be rewarded for their efforts. More users would be confident about the costs and therefore take advantage of the services, rather than the current split of customers either being unsure whether to use the service or being vulnerable to ‘bill shock’.
Operators should be obliged to conduct credit checks and impose credit limits on accounts at the outset of each 12-month period. They should be encouraged to provide consumers with up-to-date costs perhaps on the phone or online, as with online banking.
The real issue is giving consumers the ability to monitor their charges, whatever the rate they are being billed. To achieve this, the European Commission needs to focus on introducing easy-to-access, up-to-date information for mobile customers. It is a matter of transparency and consumers being confident that they are able to manage their spend.
The European Commission is doing its bit by trying to reduce the cost of roaming charges while consumers are abroad, but this comes as we see reports that operators, most recently Vodafone, are increasing their minimum call charges on some tariffs. The Commission is set to legislate this autumn and we will wait to see what changes are made.