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Singapore Budget 2014: MDA to protect consumers against unfair pay-TV programming or pricing changes

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said there are "concerns" over unfair practices. -- BH FILE PHOTO: TUNI SHARIFF  
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said there are "concerns" over unfair practices. -- BH FILE PHOTO: TUNI SHARIFF  

CONSUMERS may soon be able to cancel their pay-TV subscriptions without any penalty after unilateral changes to programming or pricing by the service provider.

This is if a proposed rule by the Media Development Authority (MDA) to address the problem of one-sided contracts is enforced.

Specifically, the rule will cover instances when pay-TV operators impose higher fees, or remove channels or important programmes while contracts are still in force - situations where the MDA may deem to be "detrimental" to subscribers.

Announcing this on Monday during the Committee of Supply debate, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said there are "concerns" over unfair practices.

Pay-TV providers changing the terms of in-force contracts has long been the bane of consumers. There are clauses in contracts to allow such unilateral changes.

Recognising that these changes are a problem, Dr Yaacob said: "When consumers wish to exit their contracts in such situations, they currently have to pay exit penalties."

Over the past three years, many irate customers had written to The Straits Times forum to complain about being forced to pay more for fewer or unwanted programmes, among others.

In a letter published in November 10, 2012, writer Simon Goh complained that SingTel removed Champions League from the Ultimate Sports Package he had bought in 2011, and was then asked to pay more to watch the games.

Two other rules to tackle complaints are also being considered as part of the MDA's Media Code review to protect consumers' interest.

One of them is to prohibit service providers from forcing subscribers to upgrade their non-pay-TV services to make changes to their pay-TV packages.

"Occasionally, subscribers are required to upgrade their non-pay TV services, for example broadband services, when they change their pay-TV services. These upgrades are typically not necessary to support the changes in the pay-TV services," Dr Yaacob said.

Retailers will also be required to highlight important contractual terms like the expiry of promotional prices or early termination charges prior to signing on customers.

MDA will consult the public on these proposals in April this year (2014).

In 2012, MDA also stepped up consumer protection measures when it enforced a new rule to cap all pay-TV contracts at two years. Early cancellation charges must also be pro-rated, so the closer a customer is to the end of his contract, the lower the cancellation fee he will pay. Pay-TV contracts were previously not regulated.

The MDA did not spell out the penalties it will impose for flouting the rules. But its existing Media Market Conduct Code has a provision for a fine of up to $1 million.

itham@sph.com.sg

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