News Column

Shock therapy

February 17, 2014

By Srisamorn Phoosuphanusorn, Bangkok Post, Thailand

Feb. 17--Have you ever suffered from "mobile bill shock"? If you have recently opened your mobile phone bill and stared in horror at the extra charges you have racked up, then you may be one of about 1,000 people whom the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) says were hit with extra charges in 2012, costing mobile users more than 100 million baht.

However, the NBTC disclosed that it had only heard from 52 customers claiming surprisingly large bills for data roaming services in 2012.

The latest case involved a haj pilgrim in Saudi Arabia who racked up almost 1.3 million baht in phone charges on his journey to Mecca.

Mobile bill shock refers to the shock customers experience when they receive unexpectedly high mobile bill charges, mainly caused by inadvertent or unintentional use of mobile data services especially when roaming.

Roaming is the service that enables a mobile phone customer to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services, including home data services, when travelling outside the home network. For example, should you travel beyond your mobile phone company's cellular network range, your phone will automatically hop on to another phone company's service, if available.

This phenomenon has become more common with the increasing popularity of mobile data services, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and other smart devices.

Commissioner Prawit Leesatapornwongsa said the regulator disclosed that most consumers' complained they had difficulty finding information about data charges or were given insufficient or incorrect information by the operators.

The regulator said it's not surprising that people are confused as mobile operators have hundreds of tariffs, but on the plus side this means that individuals can find a price plan that suits them. However, on the minus side it is hard to keep track of what you have and what you need.

The NBTC urged operators to provide a description of key charges on their mobile phone contracts.

Mr Prawit said it's sensible to try to mitigate your own bill shock by understanding how your mobile phone contract and billing works, and what to do if things go wrong.

He said the biggest cause of bill shock is simply that they have no idea how their bills are calculated. Many consumers do not know what they are being charged for calls and bills, and that the large number of tariffs makes this trickier.

Mr Prawit said the NBTC this year plans to issue strict rules to prevent bill shock scenarios. The preventive measures include setting a charge ceiling for international roaming services; setting a usage cap for all kinds of usage-based services; and alerting customers through SMS or email when they reach maximum quota or balance limitations; and shutting down data roaming while abroad for subscribers who want to protect themselves from being overcharged by dialling *106# as well as setting a cap for all kinds of usage-based services.

Customers who use the new service will receive a short message from their mobile phone operator confirming that data has been switched off and providing a number to call to reactivate data again when they return home.

The NBTC also distributed a free handbook explaining how to prevent overcharging when using mobile services abroad.

Mr Prawit suggested mobile users to thoroughly check roaming fees in the country they intend to visit ahead of time to adjust their usage accordingly.

They should turn off the automatic network searching mode when travelling to prevent their smartphones from connecting to other networks outside of their package, he added.

Customers who have been hit by surprisingly high bills can file a complaint with the NBTC's consumer protection panel.?Weerawong Wongpreedee

Purchasing a local SIM card in order to have a number and tariff plan with a local operator is also a good idea. This will allow users to pay the standard domestic rate, not the rates reserved for gouging foreigners.

Mobile users also can choose Voice over Internet Protocol services and other cheap alternative systems, said Mr Prawit.

To address the problems, mobile leader Advanced Info Service (AIS) is introducing a "no worry data roaming" campaign to help its customers work out which contract is right for them.

A slew of roaming data packages allow customers to add to their current plans or shift to a more appropriate tariff.

Customers are also allowed to restrict how much they spend on roaming to avoid unexpectedly high bills. Customers will receive alerts about heavy roaming usage.

Roaming quota limits are also available for users to prevent hefty bill charges as the system will warn users if they exceed the limit. Users are also allowed to set their own quota limits excluded from the signed-up plans.

Prattana Leela-panang, AIS's senior vice-president for digital products, said the packages are aimed to prevent high bills and maximise customer satisfaction.

Some of the offerings include the Super Value Voice Roaming packages starting at 340 baht in exchange for 50 megabytes of use plus making free international calls for 15 minutes.

The Super Value Data Roaming package comes at a price of six baht per megabyte or 340 baht for 50 MB of use.

Mr Prattana admitted that these dissatisfied roamers can negatively impact mobile operators reputation and ultimately lead to churn and revenue loss.

The rising popularity of instant messaging platforms is beginning to eat into mobile operator's revenues from SMS services. For the first time, the average number of short messages sent by mobile users every month has declined according to data available from operators.

Mobile users, especially younger ones now prefer using Instant Messaging platforms such as Line and WhatsApp. The ease of use and cost effectiveness make these a more attractive option.

It also allows users to share their locations, or exchange pictures, videos, voice notes, files and more with their contacts. Short messages pale in comparison. The only advantage that an SMS has is that it is available across all types of phones while Instant Messaging is on mid- and high-end smart phones.

Although the average number of text messages has declined significantly, operators are not worried as lost revenue is being more than recovered by data plans.

Operators have partnered with the messaging solution providers to offer attractive plans to customers.

"Going forward as data services become more and more important from the revenue point of view, instant messaging is one of the applications that will drive this," said Mr Prattana.

Don't get gouged by bill shock

How can consumers avoid mobile bill shock? Here are some tips on how to prevent it and ways to tackle the most pressing issues identified by the regulator.

- Switch off the automatic update functions for e-mail and software when necessary.

- Ask your mobile operator to deactivate or cancel the mobile data service if you do not need it. You may also disable the data service function of your mobile phone, or use another handset without internet access.

- For internet access, avoid automatic connection on your mobile phone to usage-sensitive GPRS or 3G service, instead using free or flat rate WiFi service. Do this by turning off the function enabling automatic switching and setting internet access to manual mode instead of GPRS/3G.

- Select a monthly mobile data plan that suits your usual pattern of data usage.

- Check your data usage from time to time via the operator's customer service hotline, website or SMS.

- Avoid unnecessary mobile data roaming charges. When travelling abroad, check with your operator about its roaming partners at that destination and their charging method before leaving.

- Purchase a local SIM card and use it to take advantage of a local operator's cheaper tariff plan. This allows users to pay the standard domestic rate, not rates that gouge foreigners.

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(c)2014 the Bangkok Post (Bangkok, Thailand)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)


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