Sat | Nov 18, 2017

Elizabeth Bennett Marsh | OUR’s stance on roaming, credit swipe

Published:Sunday | July 23, 2017 | 12:00 AMElizabeth Bennett Marsh

Recently, consumers have been talking in the mass and social media about the 'sucking out' (depletion) of call credit for data usage and high roaming charges. They have asked why the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) has not intervened to regulate these prices and services.

While we are authorised to regulate the telecommunications sector, we must operate within the perimeter of the relevant legislation. The Telecommunications Act, which is the main instrument of regulation for this sector, sets out specific conditions and processes under which we can regulate the rates of an operator.

Generally, an operator must first be declared dominant in a particular market before its rates can be subject to regulation. A dominant firm is one that is able to act relatively independently of consumers, its competitors, and customers, for example, when setting prices.

Currently, none of the operators has been declared dominant in any market that would allow for the regulation of either wholesale or retail roaming rates. Additionally, even if we could regulate roaming rates in the Jamaican telecommunications market by virtue of a declaration of dominance, this in itself would be insufficient to bring about a significant reduction in international roaming retail rates. This is so because the retail rates include wholesale prices that are set by foreign operators that are outside the OUR's jurisdiction. The fundamental problem for regulating mobile charges for countries like Jamaica has been the absence of extraterritorial jurisdiction.

When a Jamaican mobile subscriber uses his phone in a foreign country, for example in the United States, the retail roaming charges incurred involve both domestic and international - wholesale and retail. The retail costs include specific costs such as billing, marketing, and other such charges, while the wholesale charges include the Inter-Operator Tariffs, which are agreed bilaterally between the home and visited network operators. The wholesale mobile roaming cost elements (depending on the type of call made) are:

- Mobile/fixed termination in Jamaica/United States/third country (if the subscriber makes an outgoing call)

- Mobile termination in the United States (if the subscriber receives an incoming call).

- International transit (if the subscriber calls home or a third country)

- National transit (if the subscriber calls a number based in the United States)

- Roaming-specific costs - costs incurred by operators for roaming-specific services such as contracting, billing other operators, specific signalling, etc.

The comparison has been made with recent developments in the European Union (EU) where, on June 15, 2017, the EU ended roaming surcharges for all EU mobile subscribers travelling within their member states. Those subscribers can 'Roam Like at Home' and pay domestic prices for roaming calls, SMS, and data. This is possible because for the purposes of that type of regulation, the EU is considered to be one geographical market and a territory without any internal borders. Notably, EU residents will be subject to roaming charges when travelling outside that geographic zone.

 

SINGLE ICT SPACE

 

An effective resolution for high prices for international mobile roaming services will only happen when there are appropriate bilateral, regional, and/or international agreements. For instance, initiatives such as the CARICOM Single ICT Space should result in the removal of roaming charges across CARICOM countries. The Single ICT Space represents the digital arm of the CARICOM Single Market and Economy (CSME). It is envisioned as an ICT-enabled borderless space that fosters economic, social, and cultural integration for the betterment of Caribbean citizens. This Space, once implemented, should also promote investment, create digital citizens, safeguard against cyber-security threats and advance the CARICOM Digital Agenda 2025.

While the regulation of roaming rates is not an option in the short to medium term, the OUR will be taking steps to provide greater transparency for consumers and to protect them from bill shock because of roaming charges. One such move is the exploration of regulatory initiatives that allow users to better understand the implications of roaming on their bills, thus enabling them to manage their usage of mobile roaming.

Based on several complaints received, the OUR is aware that the depletion of call credit on mobile phones, once the data credit has run out, is a source of angst for customers. Chief among the complaints is that customers are not notified when their data credit is nearly exhausted or has been exhausted. Customers also complain that unbeknown to them, when their data credit is depleted, their call credit is applied for data functions.

The mobile phone companies claim that this happens as a result of phone settings. Customers choose to have some applications (apps) updated automatically, while some do not turn off their cellular data, so it is constantly working even when there is Wi-Fi available. Mobile companies claim that if data runs out and there is a data session in progress, it will continue, using the call credit in the process.

The OUR is not convinced that sufficient public education has been undertaken by the operators to inform customers about how to prevent their call credit being used for data service and about how they can better manage their data usage. In this regard, the OUR is actively looking at various initiatives to ensure more transparency and the display of greater savvy on the part of consumers with regard to data usage on their devices.

In the meantime, we will also continue to dialogue with the major utility companies as to the steps they can take to address this problem and reduce the number of consumer complaints and disaffection among their customer base.

- Elizabeth Bennett Marsh is the public education specialist at the OUR.

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