Wider powers for telecoms regulator

Singapore's telecoms regulator can now direct building owners to let telcos install telecommunication equipment on their premises, paving the way for better mobile phone service.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament yesterday that building owners have often been reluctant to provide space to the three local telcos - Singtel, StarHub and M1 - for such installations, thus affecting mobile service coverage.

The Telecommunications (Amendment) Bill, widely supported by MPs and passed yesterday, gives the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) the power to settle these disputes.

The IMDA will be able to direct building owners to cooperate, including mandating that they provide rent-free rooftop space for the equipment.

"IMDA has faced many practical challenges with building managers that have delayed timely deployments in the buildings they manage," said Dr Yaacob, noting that the Telecommunications Act was last reviewed in 2012.

The regulator receives, on average, 30 objections by building owners every year, with most of them resolved through informal mediation, he said in reply to a question from Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) during the debate on the Bill.

Such delays affect mobile signal coverage and quality not just for users in the building, but also neighbouring buildings due to Singapore's dense urban environment, he added.

There are also instances where people are restricted to a particular telecom service because of agreements between building owners and the service providers. Dr Yaacob said this should not be the case in a liberalised sector, adding that people should have the freedom to choose their preferred operator.

With the changes in the law, the IMDA can prohibit building owners from exclusive tie-ups for telecommunication services that could deny tenants their choice of telcos. Even if an agreement has been signed, it can be invalidated if it is deemed to be against the public's interest.

In a high-profile dispute in 2014, the Sports Hub had an exclusive agreement for locally-based wireless firm Consistel to host its wireless systems, including 3G and 4G equipment.

The three local mobile operators had to lease the equipment to provide mobile coverage in the Sports Hub, but could not reach a deal with Consistel. The stand-off almost left the Sports Hub without mobile coverage for its June opening that year.

Dr Yaacob yesterday gave the assurance that IMDA will be "reasonable, prudent and circumspect in the application of these powers", and will only narrowly apply them to specific contractual clauses.

Under another change to the Act, there will be a new Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) scheme which aims to help people resolve billing, contracts, service quality and compensation issues over telecoms and media services.

Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Chua Chu Kang GRC) asked how the scheme improves upon existing ways to resolve disputes.

Dr Yaacob said there will be "mandatory participation for specific telecoms and media licensees", and having a dedicated scheme to solve these disputes will "ensure a smoother process for all parties involved".

Currently, people can turn to the Consumer Association of Singapore or the Singapore Mediation Centre, among others, but this is not mandatory.

He added that people will pay significantly less with the ADR than turning to the courts or Small Claims Tribunal to force telcos to come to the table for settlement.

Last year, mobile phone, broadband and pay-TV subscribers filed about 400 billing and contract-related complaints to IMDA.

"The actual number is likely to be higher as some subscribers may have given up on pursuing their disputes," Dr Yaacob said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2016, with the headline 'Wider powers for telecoms regulator'. Print Edition | Subscribe