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Dispute resolution body for telco industry mooted

This is to be an independent agency to iron out consumer-telco disputes over billing, contracts and customer support

Singapore

THE government is looking to set up an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism for the telecommunications and media sectors, so that consumers and service providers can iron out issues relating to billing, contractual terms, request for compensation and customer care and support services.

The proposed agency is to be an independent and impartial institution; similar bodies are in place in Australia, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The proposal to set up this body is among a number of planned amendments to the Telecommunications Act (TA) and corresponding changes to the Media Development Authority of Singapore Act (MDAA). The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) is seeking feedback from the public on these changes; public consultation, which started on Friday, ends on Aug 24.

The TA is the legislative framework that governs the regulation of Singapore's telecommunications sector. MCI and the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) are reviewing the Act - last revised in 2012 - to ensure the relevance of policies and legislative frameworks in the fast-changing telecommunications landscape, an MCI spokesman said.

Customers with issues with their service providers may, at the moment, approach IDA and the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), but these bodies face limitations in resolving the disputes because they do not mandate the form of remedies or corrective actions by the service providers.

In the last three years, complaints against telecom-service providers have accounted for more than three-quarters of the complaints received by IDA; last year, there were 1,900 complaints.

Each year, over 300 telecoms-related complaints are related to contractual issues and disputes between consumers and telecom-service providers.

Under the proposal, consumers must always first approach the service provider to resolve the dispute; the ADR body is not the first stop. If the dispute is not resolved with the service provider or the IDA or MDA, the case may then be referred to the ADR organisation.

A successful mediation will create a binding, enforceable agreement between the consumer and the service provider; if the mediation is unsuccessful, the consumer may bring the case to the courts or to the Small Claims Tribunal.

Another proposed change to the TA involves the use of rent-free space in the buildings reserved for mobile operators. This space, called the Mobile Deployment Space (MDS), would have to include both rooftop and non-rooftop areas. Building owners will have to provide some rooftop space for mobile network equipment if requested. The current code of practice does not have this stipulation, and the change is expected to help mobile operators to serve the surrounding land or buildings.

The total amount of MDS to be provided rent-free will remain unchanged initially; mobile operators will continue to have to negotiate with building owners to obtain additional space beyond this amount.

In recent years, MCI has observed instances of exclusive arrangements between property owners and telecom operators for the deployment of telecommunications systems. This will be allowed to continue for preferential rates and promotions, but the IDA will be given the power to ensure that such arrangements do not deny end-users and occupants of the building access to other telecommunications-service providers of their choice.

MCI is also proposing administrative amendments to the TA to strengthen the IDA's regulatory oversight of the telecommunications industry. For example, in view of the rising number of incidents of cable cutting in recent years, MCI and IDA are proposing to raise the maximum composition sum for offences under the TA from S$5,000 to S$10,000.

The last time the fine amount was revised was in 2004.

There have so far been eight cases of telecom cables being cut this year - more than the whole of last year. And the number of cases last year was in turn twice that of the year before.

The increase has been attributed to the spurt in construction projects across the island in recent years.

The three telcos welcomed the consultation process and said they would provide their feedback. An M1 spokesman said the telco was supportive of the proposed TA amendments on rooftop mobile deployments and for stronger measures to deter cable cuts caused by human error.

"This will facilitate our efforts to deliver a better experience to our customers," he said.

A Singtel spokeswoman said the telco was reviewing the details of the consultation paper and would provide feedback to the IDA in due course.

Starhub said that, in order to roll out networks and deliver services to customers, "it is necessary to have fast and straightforward access to space and buildings". Its spokesman said: "Providing customers with high-quality services is our priority, and we welcome any initiatives that will facilitate our service delivery. We will provide our response on the proposed amendments to MCI in due course."

MyRepublic, which aspires to be Singapore's fourth telco, also welcomed the proposed changes and said it planned to respond to the consultation process to express its "strong support of these changes".