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LCQ 20: Complaints related to billing of telecommunications services
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     The following is a question by the Hon Albert Chan and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mrs Rita Lau, in the Legislative Council today (December 8):

Question:

     In reply to my question on November 11, 2009 on the issue of excessive service fee-charging by telecommunications service providers, the Government said that when there was evidence to indicate that a service provider might breach the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap. 106) or the licensing conditions, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) would commence investigation and penalise the service provider in substantiated cases. Yet, I have still received complaints recently from a number of members of the public that they were charged by telecommunications service providers for services they did not apply for. In addition, some members of the public pointed out that the service charges of the telecommunications service providers were much higher than those they should actually pay, thus causing them to suffer huge losses. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) whether it knows the number of complaints, received last year by OFTA and the Consumer Council respectively, which involved excessive fee-charging by telecommunications service providers, and the names of the service providers concerned, broken down by the type of telecommunications services (e.g. fixed-line telephones, mobile phones, external telecommunications and broadband Internet access, etc.) and the nature of complaints;

(b) whether it knows, among the cases in (a), the number of those in which the complainants sought compensation successfully, as well as the names of the telecommunications service providers which were prosecuted and the number of prosecutions instituted against them; and

(c) apart from continuing to implement the existing measures to regulate telecommunications service providers, whether the authorities will adopt new regulatory measures, so as to better protect consumers' interests; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?

Reply:

President,

     The telecommunications services in Hong Kong are pervasive and competitive. Every year, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) and the Consumer Council (CC) receive a substantial number of complaints in respect of the billing (note) of telecommunications services. The majority of these complaints are related to contractual disputes. Upon receiving the complaints, OFTA and the CC will refer them to the concerned service operators for follow-up direct. However, when there is evidence to indicate that an operator may breach the Telecommunications Ordinance (TO) or the licensing conditions, OFTA will commence investigation and penalise the operator in substantiated cases.  

     My reply to the question is as follows:

(a) In the past year, the number of complaints on billing disputes received by OFTA, broken down by the type of services, is set out below íV

                                     November 2009
                                     to October 2010
                                     ---------------
Fixed services                        118
Mobile services                       1,374
Internet access services              125
Others (e.g. external                 53
communications services)
Total                                 1,670

     In the past year, the number of complaints on billing disputes received by the CC, broken down by the type of services, is set out below íV    

                                     November 2009
                                     to October 2010
                                     ---------------
Fixed services                        454
Mobile services                       1,644
Internet access services              939
Others(e.g. external                  1,999
communications services)
Total                                 5,036

     As not all complaints are substantiated and some of these complaints may only be service enquiries, and different operators with different customer bases will also affect complaint figures, therefore, in line with the established practice of handling consumer complaints, OFTA and the CC will not publicise the names of the telecommunications service operators involved in the complaints.  

(b) For cases set out in part (a), OFTA and the CC do not have figures on the number of complainants successfully recovering compensation or receiving refunds from the telecommunications service operators. As most of the complaints in respect of billing disputes are contractual issues between individual consumers and operators, OFTA does not have the right to intervene in these cases. OFTA has also found no breaches of the TO or the licensing conditions in respect of those complaints on billing which requires imposition of penalty. As regards the CC, its main role is to help consumers resolve contractual disputes through mediation.

(c) At present, the licences issued by OFTA to the telecommunications service operators have included conditions for protecting consumers. For instance, the licensee has to ensure that the metering equipment and the billing system related to the provision of service are accurate and reliable. As aforementioned, if there is evidence to indicate that an operator is in breach of the TO or the licensing conditions, OFTA will commence investigation and penalise the operator in substantiated cases.

     In addition, OFTA conducted a pilot programme of the Customer Complaint Settlement Scheme (CCSS), which ran for 18 months from September 2008 to February 2010, to test the practicality and the efficacy of an alternative dispute resolution mechanism to resolve disputes between operators and customers in the telecommunications sector outside the judicial system. After the completion of the pilot scheme, in June this year, we issued a consultation paper to seek the views of the public and the industry on the possible long-term implementation of CCSS in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, we also reported to the Panel on Information Technology and Broadcasting of the Legislative Council (Panel) on the outcome of the pilot programme and consulted Members' views. OFTA will decide on the way forward after the consultation period ends on December 8.

     To enhance consumer protection further, OFTA issued a new voluntary Code of Practice (the Code) in February, 2010 to provide the industry with guidelines on drawing up fair, balanced and reasonable service contracts with consumers. The industry association -- Communications Association of Hong Kong -- is actively discussing the details of compliance with the Code with its members, and will formulate an industry code for self-regulation drawing reference to the Code of OFTA.

     According to OFTA's analysis on the complaints received from January to October this year relating to mobile data services, billing disputes accounted for 90% of these complaints. They are mainly caused by unintentional or inadvertent use of mobile data services, giving rise to unexpectedly high mobile bill charges.

     In June this year, OFTA requested mobile network operators to implement a range of measures to address the problem, which include allowing customers to opt out of certain services; setting a charge ceiling; setting a usage cap for usage-based mobile services; alerting customers through short messages as their pre-determined usage threshold is reached; and providing short message alert on data roaming, etc. Mobile network operators have already implemented the above measures to differing degrees. Details are published on the relevant webpage launched by OFTA in August this year. Meanwhile, with a view to enhancing consumer awareness and knowledge of different aspects of the mobile services, OFTA has carried out public education activities including making TV announcements and publishing consumer alerts/ advice on newspapers and magazines.

(Note) While some complaints on billing involve excessive charging, some involve other disputes on billing such as customers not being clear about the details of the charge plan. As such, the figures in part (a) of the reply are not restricted to complaints on excessive charging. Both OFTA and the CC have not further categorised such complaints related to billing.  

Ends/Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Issued at HKT 17:21

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