Ofta takes harder line on telecoms disputes

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 June, 2010, 12:00am

Customers unhappy with their telecoms operator may in future be able to settle contractual disputes through an independent body.

This is the favoured option put forward in a paper released yesterday by the Office of the Telecommunications Authority as it launched a three-month consultation. Ofta said it did not think self-regulation would work.

Ofta proposed in 2007 that it wanted to provide a quick and economical way for service providers and clients to settle disputes with less legal formality by setting up an alternative dispute resolution scheme.

This proposal was followed by the customer complaint settlement scheme (CCSS), which ran on a pilot basis from September 2008 to February this year to test the practicality of the system.

However, it received a lukewarm response, with only three service providers taking part and just 18 cases being handled.

In a document to the Legislative Council's panel on information technology and broadcasting yesterday, Ofta said: 'Having regard to the far from enthusiastic participation of the industry in the pilot programme, [Ofta] is not optimistic that a self-regulatory scheme will work for the CCSS on a sustainable basis in the longer term.

'[Ofta] does not consider it appropriate to opt for a light-handed approach for this case and is inclined to invoke the condition of the relevant licences to mandate operators to participate in the future CCSS.'

Contractual disputes between customers and operators are currently settled through the courts, including the Small Claims Tribunal, if negotiations fail.

The pilot CCSS scheme took a two-step approach. The first stage involved mediation. If mediation did not result in a settlement, the case went for adjudication.

Of the 18 cases, six were successfully mediated and resolved. Eleven went to adjudication, with four cases being ruled in favour of the operators, five in favour of the customers and two with shared responsibility. One case is still pending review.

One-third of the complaints were from users of broadband services dissatisfied with value-added services, five were about mobile services, and the rest concerned IDD, fixed line and pay-television services.

The authority expects funding for the scheme will have to be borne primarily by the industry, but it may make a one-off contribution for the initial start-up if necessary.

The consultation will seek the public's opinions on such issues as the mode of operation, funding arrangement, mediation fees and adjudication of the scheme.

The lawmaker for the information technology sector, Samson Tam Wai-ho, agreed that the scheme should be made mandatory to safeguard the interests of consumers.

'There have been many consumer complaints and there is no sign that the situation is improving, while many operators are not willing to join the scheme voluntarily,' Tam said.

Ofta received 12,962 complaints about telecom services between 2007 and last year. Of these, 4,016 were made last year.