LCQ18: Billing of telecommunications services
Following is a question by the Hon Chan Chi-chuen and a written reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Edward Yau, in the Legislative Council today (January 10):
In reply to my question on November 30, 2016 on the issue of telecommunications service operators (service operators) overcharging service fees, the Government stated that where there was evidence indicating that a service operator might have breached the relevant legislation (e.g. the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap 106) and the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap 362)) or licensing conditions, the Communications Authority would carry out an investigation and, for substantiated cases, it would penalise or prosecute the service operators concerned. Yet, I have still received complaints recently from members of the public about being overcharged of fees by service operators. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) of the respective numbers of complaints received in the past 12 months by the Office of the Communications Authority and the Consumer Council about service operators overcharging fees, with a breakdown by type of the telecommunications services (e.g. fixed-line telephone, mobile phone, external telecommunications and broadband Internet access) involved in the complaints;
(2) among the complaints mentioned in (1), of the number of those in which the complainants were refunded of the overcharged fees by the service operators concerned, and whether any service operators have been prosecuted for overcharging fees; if so, of the number of such cases; and
(3) apart from continuing to implement the Code of Practice in Relation to Billing Information and Payment Collection for Telecommunications Services, the Industry Code of Practice for Telecommunications Service Contracts, the "Customer Complaint Settlement Scheme" and the "mobile bill shock" preventive measures, whether the authorities will adopt new regulatory measures to enhance the protection of consumers' rights and interests; if so, of the details; if not, the reasons for that?
In general, upon receiving complaints in relation to the billing of telecommunications services, the Office of the Communications Authority (OFCA) will, with the consent of the complainants, refer such complaints to the operators concerned for follow-up with the complainants direct. Where there is evidence indicating that an operator may have breached the ordinances applicable to telecommunications services (such as the Telecommunications Ordinance (Cap 106) (TO) and the Trade Descriptions Ordinance (Cap 362) (TDO)) or relevant licence conditions, the Communications Authority (CA) will conduct an investigation in accordance with the statutory power conferred by the relevant ordinances. For cases with sufficient evidence to substantiate contravention with the relevant ordinances or licence conditions, the CA will take regulatory action or institute prosecution against the operators accordingly.
My reply to the three parts of question is as follows:
(1) The table below sets out the breakdown of the complaints on billing disputes in relation to telecommunications services (Note 1) received by OFCA in 2017 (up to end November). It also sets out the breakdown of the previous two years for reference:
The table below sets out the breakdown of the complaints on billing disputes in relation to telecommunications services (Note 2) received by the Consumer Council (CC) over the same period:
Note 1 and 2: The number of complaints on billing disputes covers all complaints in relation to billing issues, including overcharging and other billing disputes such as customers not clear about the details of their tariff plans, or customers' inadvertent use of services with additional charges (such as data roaming services), etc. The figures in the above reply are not limited to complaints about overcharging. Both OFCA and CC have not further categorised complaints on billing disputes by the content of the disputes.
(2) Out of the 302 complaint cases received by OFCA in 2017 (up to end November), there were 253 cases referred, with the consent of the complainants, by OFCA to the operators for assistance in mediating, among which 177 cases (about 70 per cent) have been settled. Over the same period, out of the 1 247 complaint cases received by CC, there were 825 cases referred, with the consent of the complainants, by CC to the operators for assistance in mediating, among which 730 cases (about 88 per cent) have been settled. OFCA and CC have requested the operators to properly handle the remaining unsettled cases that have been referred to them. OFCA and CC have not kept record on the number of overcharging cases in which the complainants have been offered a reduction in fees by the operators.
In handling the above complaint cases, OFCA has not found any substantiated cases of breaches of the existing legislation or licence conditions by the operators which justify regulatory action or prosecution against them.
(3) The CA has been closely monitoring the market operation and is committed to ensuring that the rights and interests of consumers in using telecommunications services are reasonably protected. It also takes enforcement actions in accordance with the statutory powers conferred by the TO, relevant licence conditions and the fair trading sections of the TDO, which prohibit traders from deploying specified unfair trade practices against consumers.
Regarding the billing of telecommunications services, the licences issued by the CA to telecommunications service operators require the licensees to ensure the accuracy and reliability of their metering equipment and billing system related to service usage. Furthermore, with a view to enhancing the transparency of pricing in respect of chargeable items in the provision of telecommunications services, the CA has issued the Code of Practice in Relation to Billing Information and Payment Collection for Telecommunications Services, which provides guidelines on the information to be included in bills and on the arrangements for payment collection. Seven local fixed network operators and four mobile network operators have pledged compliance with the aforementioned Code of Practice. OFCA also encourages the industry to continue to improve and implement the Industry Code of Practice for Telecommunications Service Contracts, run the Customer Complaint Settlement Scheme and continue to implement the "mobile bill shock" preventive measures, so as to protect the rights and interests of consumers.
Moreover, OFCA has, since November 2016, published on its website the "Residential Broadband Service Termination Arrangements" adopted by major broadband service operators, which cover the advance notice requirement on service termination imposed by individual operators, channels for accepting service termination requests and their relevant formats, detailed arrangements to acknowledge and confirm receipt of service termination requests, and channels for returning customer equipment. The published information aims at enhancing information transparency and enabling consumers to better understand the service termination arrangements adopted by different operators, thereby reducing disputes over such matters (including charges for service termination). By comparing the merits and otherwise of different service termination arrangements, consumers will be able to make informed decisions on service plans that best suit their needs, and operators will be encouraged to improve their services on an on-going basis. OFCA has been periodically updating the information published on its website.
OFCA is also committed to enhancing public understanding on consumer protection measures through various public education activities, including public and community talks, roving exhibitions, roving drama in schools, consumer alerts published on its website, and advertorials published on newspapers and magazines, etc. Further, OFCA regularly disseminates updated consumer messages and information through social media so as to facilitate members of the public to choose and use communications services wisely.
OFCA will continue to regulate telecommunications service operators in accordance with the relevant ordinances and, having regard to experience and consumers' views, improve the above measures to further protect the rights and interests of consumers. It will also continue its publicity and public education efforts to provide updated information to consumers.
Ends/Wednesday, January 10, 2018