Mobile network operator faces breakdown rap

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2012, 12:00am


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SmarTone is facing a possible fine - and a lambasting online - after failing to alert the Communications Authority and customers about a mobile network failure.

The operator's mobile network came to a halt for at least four hours on Monday after a power failure at a switchboard station in Central and Western District. The problem snowballed after its backup power supply also failed within a couple of hours.

Office of the Communications Authority assistant director Danny Lau Kwong-cheung said the operator did not inform them of the 8am breakdown until his office approached it two hours later.

Mobile service operators are required to inform the watchdog about any incident within 15 minutes on weekdays and an hour on holidays.

SmarTone, which has 1.6 million users, apologised in a statement to affected customers, blaming a broken circuit.

But angry customers vowing to seek compensation described the company online as 'rubbish' and accused it of charging them even when the network was down. Complaints came in across Hong Kong, from the urban area to the New Territories.

Lau said the operator did not inform the office until his colleagues approached the company on learning of the problem about 10am and were told it was 'just a glitch'. 'At 3pm, in our second communication, they told us the network had almost been restored to normal,' he said.

Lau said operators were also required to inform their customers through the media or internet about a breakdown. OFCA has ordered the operator to submit an explanation in three days.

An OFCA spokeswoman said if SmarTone was found to have breached licence conditions, it would face a fine of up to HK$200,000 for a first offence. As of yesterday, the authority had received 11 inquiries and complaints. Customers on internet forums were scathing.

'SmarTone is really rubbish. They do not inform customers about the network failure. And it still failed at 5pm to 6pm. The service is bad and costly ... now their network fails, but they are still charging full price,' a user said on forum.

In a statement yesterday, SmarTone said it would 'learn from this incident and make improvements'. It would also review its mechanism for informing the authority.

The operator said a power failure first occurred at 8am on Monday in the building on Hong Kong Island where its switchboard station is housed and the backup power supply worked immediately. But the backup generator broke down for an 'unspecified reason' at 10.35am. Service resumed at about 2.30pm.

Charles Mok, of the Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter, said SmarTone could not explain why a power failure at a switchboard station in Hong Kong Island would result in a territory-wide network failure.

Liberal Party chairwoman Miriam Lau Kin-yee wrote to SmarTone, urging it to pay compensation equal to one to two days' service.

Consumer Council chief executive Connie Lau Yin-hing said consumers could pursue compensation for a service failure but they must prove negligence by the provider.

Some 20 users staged a protest at SmarTone's Mong Kok branch yesterday. DAB Sha Tin district councillor Elizabeth Quat, who organised the protest, urged SmarTone to conduct a thorough check of its system and called on the authority to improve its informing mechanisms.