Stiffer penalties proposed for contractors who damage underground cables; scheme to resolve disputes between consumers and telcos

Road works being carried out along Upper Thomson Road as seen on July 9, 2014.
Road works being carried out along Upper Thomson Road as seen on July 9, 2014. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - More cases of damaged underground cables due to construction and road works have prompted the authorities to propose stiffer penalties on negligent contractors.

Such incidents had disrupted the fixed telephony and Internet services of subscribers for hours, even as connectivity becomes increasingly critical to businesses and home users.

On Friday (Aug 5), the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) proposed changes in the law to double the maximum compoundable offences on negligent contractors to $10,000.

There were more cable cuts during the first seven months of this year (2016) - at eight - than the whole of last year (2015). Last year's number was almost double that in 2014. They were mostly involved in the construction of new train lines, power cabling, water and sewage piping works.

"This is often due to contractors' failures in following the prescribed procedures of finding and isolating telecommunication cables before commencing earthworks," said MCI in a consultation paper put out on Friday.

Contractors were also found to have cut corners by not hiring a licensed telecom cable detection worker to locate underground cables - a requirement since July 2000.

Contractors may be prosecuted and fined up to $1 million for heavier offences, a provision that remains unchanged under the Telecommunications Act.

MCI's consultation paper also outlined other revisions to the existing laws that govern telcos and media service providers to better safeguard consumer interests.

For instance, it proposed the setting up of an Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme to resolve issues related to billing, contractual terms, service quality and compensation.

Decisions made under this scheme are binding on telcos and media service providers, a first here. Similar schemes are in place in Australia, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The scheme will be administered by an independent organisation it appoints. The scheme aims to provide consumers with a cheaper and faster way to resolve their disputes with their service providers. Currently, consumers are only able toturn to the courts and small claims tribunal.

Over the past three years, mobile phone and broadband subscribers had filed 300 complaints yearly related to billing and contractual terms, said MCI.

Another proposed change will prevent building owners from tying upexclusively with telcos that could result in tenants being denied of their choice of telcos for fixed line telephony or broadband services.

To allow telcos to provide better mobile service coverage, MCI also proposed that building owners provide rooftop space- and not just any space - to telcos for installing their equipment rent-free. Any objections by the building owner must be raised to the authorities within 14 days of the telco's request. Telcos may enter the building if no objections were raised within the stipulated timeframe.

When contacted, Singtel said: "We are reviewing the details of the consultation paper and will provide our feedback to IDA in due course."

A StarHub spokesman said: "To roll out networks and deliver services to customers, it is necessary to have fast and straightforward access to space and buildings. We welcome any initiatives that will facilitate our service delivery."

An M1 spokesman said: "We are supportive of the IDA's proposed amendments on rooftop mobile deployments and for stronger measures to deter cable cuts due to human error, which will facilitate M1's efforts to deliver a better experience to our customers."