Consumers fret over phone service when firms lose third of 3G spectrum

Government's decision to seize and auction a third of the 3G spectrum has consumers fretting about the effect on data and voice services

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:03am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 November, 2013, 5:03am

Consumers facing the prospect of poorer service due to a shake-up of the 3G mobile market say they are anxious about the impact of the move.

The city's 11 million 3G and 4G mobile users will have to wait to see how they are affected by the government's decision to seize and auction a third of the 3G spectrum from HKT's PCCW, SmarTone, CSL's One2Free and Hutchison Telecommunication's Three Hong Kong.

The regulator, the Communications Authority, said on Friday it planned to auction the spectrum by the fourth quarter of next year. The world's largest telecom operator, China Mobile, was the only operator to express an interest in bidding for a new 3G licence. Experts have warned the change would lead to worse service and higher bills. The government says the move will encourage competition.

Office rental group Compass Offices, which uses 38 3G and 4G contracts for its staff, said it was already experiencing slow and unreliable coverage in terms of data services and that changes could be catastrophic.

"It's critical, absolutely critical to have a reliable service to the success of our businesses … we want it to be cost-effective," Alan Mackay, vice-president of global investment at Compass, said.

"We want reliable, solid data access. You can't operate a business like we do without it."

Mackay, who oversees corporate contracts with SmarTone and Three Hong Kong, said Hong Kong was cheaper than Australia, Japan and other advanced mobile markets.

Josh Tam Siu-hay, 32, who lives in Yuen Long, said his telephone calls using the One2Free service frequently dropped due to the remoteness of his location. "A big impact on my service quality would be devastating," he said.

Paula Lam, 22, said her call and data services on One2Free were erratic. "I never considered 4G because 3G at the moment is more than good enough for my requirements, but if the service deteriorates, I will seriously consider 4G … [but] what's the point of paying more for a patchy connection?"

The Consumer Council said yesterday that telecom operators should work with regulators to minimise the impact on services. It said it hoped dialogue would mitigate poorer quality service.

Greg So Kam-leung, secretary for commerce and economic development, defended the decision. "In the past, auctions resulted in higher costs for [operators] to use the spectrum, but it didn't make our telecommunications services more expensive," he said yesterday.

He added that the policy was unlikely to deal a huge blow to service quality because, while the government would auction off a third of the 3G spectrum currently held by each of the city's four incumbent 3G mobile network operators, that accounted for just 7 per cent to 10 per cent of all spectrum held by operators.

Additional reporting by Tony Cheung