Sat | Aug 8, 2020

Telecoms concerned over policing of phone bills

Published:Sunday | June 28, 2020 | 12:18 AMSteven Jackson - Senior Business Reporter

Jamaican telecommunications companies Digicel and FLOW continue to voice concerns that some new directives by the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) to mitigate against shock bills and credit depletion could negatively affect their financials.

THE OUR summarised the telecoms’ positions in its newly issued directive on shock bills, which came after a period of consultation.

Shock bills are higher-than-expected charges for postpaid customers while credit depletion, which affects prepaid customers, is due mainly to unexpected data charges.

“Both Digicel and FLOW are concerned about the potential cost implications of some elements within the proposal and have suggested a closer review,” stated the OUR in its report. “FLOW is of the opinion that the mandates that the proposal seeks to impose require more detailed study. The company is concerned that if implemented as is, it will have the effect of determining the business model of a service provider, which it views as outside the scope of the OUR.”

Last June, the OUR issued a report stating that nearly half of Jamaican mobile-phone users continued to experience credit depletion, shock bills, and confusing data plans. The OUR, at the time, said that the findings of the report would form the basis for recommendations to telecoms on improving their billing practices. Those recommendations were issued as six directives this month. The determinations are set for implementation later this year, except one directive pertaining to a price cap on bills, slated for implementation in 18 months.

FLOW thinks the financial cap for customers “may be helpful” but should give the customer the option to opt out of the financial cap for both roaming and local calls, according to the OUR’s summary of the stakeholders’ response.

The OUR agreed with adding the option for customers to opt out and not be restricted by caps. Digicel currently provides caps for postpaid customers but not for roaming due to what it called delays from overseas partners in submitting records. Digicel added that it would require system upgrades to implement the OUR directive. The OUR recommended that Digicel implement the system upgrades.

Turning to prepaid customers susceptible to credit depletion after exhausting data plans, the OUR said it would enforce what is already a practice by the telecoms, that is, the sending of SMS notifications to consumers. The regulator is,essentially, making it mandatory for them to send out the notifications.

The OUR, however, did not follow through on its proposal to force the telecoms to let users ‘opt in’ to continue using the data. Instead, those customers who miss notifications of exhausted plans will get billed at the higher ‘pay as you go’ prices. This measure appears to mainly affect FLOW prepaid customers. FLOW, in earlier comments in the document, said that customers should take some degree of ‘responsibility’ and that it sends out many SMS text notifications. It also updated its platform in the past to allow customers to auto-renew their plan. Customers, however, can still suffer from credit depletion.

“Service providers shall automatically send usage-notification alerts to customers without a requirement to opt in to this provision,” said the OUR directive.

FLOW Jamaica’s comment on the credit-depletion issue was not forthcoming up to press time.

The OUR determination covers various elements including: general provision for information surrounding the full costs and stipulations of service set for implementation in six months; provision for information pertaining to roaming; the method of publication of information in media; the establishment of a financial cap set for implementation in four months’ time for non-roaming services and 18 months for roaming services; and automatic usage notifications or alerts, set for implementation in four months.

steven.jackson@gleanerjm.com