The Communications Ombudsman has slammed mobile phone operators for not doing enough to help people avoid getting unexpectedly large bills after going online.
The complaints watchdog said the firms must do more to tackle the ‘data download bill shock’ dilemma, which it sees as a serious and growing problem.
Chief Ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith said that is because it is becoming more common for people to download big files, like videos, onto mobiles. He says that has led to a rise in the number of customers being affected.
Shand Smith added phone companies could do more to warn people but says they are doing nothing wrong under the current regulations.
He told the BBC: ‘Most mobile operators are playing by the rules, so that then begs the question: are the rules what they ought to be?’
‘They can solve the problem in three ways. First of all, be very clear about what they mean by unlimited in the advertisements, secondly, give advice to consumers so they know when they're reaching their limit and thirdly, give advice on the amount of data that's being downloaded.’
The Ombudsman's view was backed by retailer Phones 4u. Scott Hooton, Phones 4u Commercial and Trading Director, said: 'Phones 4u would second the Communications Ombudsman’s comments that the mobile networks need to be a lot clearer when offering ‘unlimited data’ deals. This has become even more relevant after a Nielsen report from June this year found that smartphone owners - especially those with iPhones and Android devices - are consuming more data than ever before. In the last 12 months alone, the amount of data the average smartphone owner consumes per month has grown by 89 percent.
'There is always a cut-off point where charges will eventually kick in and it’s vital that the networks take more responsibility and be clearer with people, so they don't get stung by unexpected data charges. When people go abroad for example, networks should consider making data roaming opt in rather than opt out, which will help reduce bills.'
Hooton continued: 'My advice would be to continually check that you are using free Wi-Fi where possible when downloading or streaming music or videos, as it is this that consumes the most data. With all this in mind, we have teamed up with The Cloud to offer 3 months of free Wi-Fi to all customers when purchasing handsets ahead of Christmas and are now offering free Wi-Fi across all of our stores.'
Understandably mobile operators have taken issue with the ombudsman's statement. Three UK pointed out that its 'unlimited' data packages are genuinely unlimited and not subject to a 'fair usage policy.'
Three UK CEO David Dyson commented: 'Three’s all-you-can-eat data plans offer customers genuinely unlimited internet use on their smartphones and no out of bundle data bill shock. Smartphone users typically sign up for two-year contracts and use increasing amounts of data as they learn just what their smartphone can do, making limited bundles an issue for many consumers.
'Both contract and pay as you go customers tell us they prefer the peace of mind of all-you-can-eat data to fair use policies or worse still: out of bundle data bill shock. Consumers want to make the most out of their smartphones but many struggle to track their data use, our genuine all-you-can-eat plans take that problem away.'
An O2 spokesman said: 'We tackled this over a year ago by introducing data bundles, so customers never spend more than they agree to. We also text our customers to tell them how much data they’ve got left each month, and give them the option to buy more if they need, so they are always in control.'
A T-Mobile spokesperson said: 'We take transparency of customer charges for data use in the UK very seriously. T-Mobile customers, whether on pay monthly, pay as you go or You Fix plans, will never pay more than they expect for their mobile data usage in the UK.'