Charges for Web surfing catch out phone users

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2008, 12:00am

HK$14,000 bill for a month's Net browsing by mobile shows pitfalls

Mobile-phone users are facing big bills for internet services they thought were free, the consumer watchdog warned yesterday. One customer ran up a HK$14,000 bill in a month.

Complaints to the Consumer Council about data service fees are rising fast. From January to May it received 143, compared with 270 in the whole of last year and 108 in 2006.

The complainant hit with a HK$14,000 bill told the watchdog he thought he was using free Wi-fi services to access the internet.

However, he claims his service provider connected him to the Net through its fee-paying service without warning him first.

The council is still dealing with his complaint.

Wi-fi internet services are provided free of charge at some government facilities and commercial premises and in the vicinity of PCCW's public payphones, or under mobile-phone service packages that promise unlimited internet access in return for payment of a lump sum.

Users of wireless communication services, on the other hand, are charged for each byte of data transmitted. These services include GPRS (general packet radio service), 3G, and HSPDA - known as 3.5G.

Since charges for these services are calculated according to usage rather than the time spent online, downloading multimedia content or accessing webpages containing graphics can incur very high costs.

Connie Lau Yin-hing, chief executive of the council, said users may not be aware whether they are accessing the internet using Wi-fi, GPRS or 3G services. Even where free Wi-fi is offered, a phone may switch automatically to a GPRS or 3G network when the Wi-fi signal becomes too weak for the phone to pick up, Ms Lau said.

Council spokesman Philip Leung Kwong-hon advised mobile-phone users to turn off their mobile data connection and to activate it only when they need to connect to the internet.

He also suggested they make manual mode the default setting for internet connection on their phones, rather than automatic mode, to avoid switching to GPRS or 3G services unintentionally.

'Mobile phone users must make sure they understand the terms of service when they sign a contract and be alert to the performance of their mobile phones,' Mr Leung added.

Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter chairman Charles Mok said operators should do more to simplify their charging policies, and suggested they put a ceiling on an individual's data usage to avoid them inadvertently running up enormous bills.

'Most users are not technology experts and have no idea how to calculate their usage or set up their phones. It is time for operators to consider adjusting their billing method to reduce disputes with consumers,' he said.

Phone company PCCW said it did not have figures for the number of customer complaints about data connection fees, but said that when complaints arose it would seek the solution which best fits the individual's needs.

A spokesman for another service provider, SmarTone-Vodafone, said its frontline staff were required to explain service packages to clients clearly. He also reminded customers to pay attention to the pricing policies of the packages they sign up to.

Perverse charges

How to save money:

- Turn off mobile data connection, activate it only to connect to the internet

- Set internet connection default to 'manual' mode instead of 'automatic' mode

- Check if 'unlimited usage' only covers a limited number of channels, networks and certain kinds of data

Source: Consumer Council