New way to settle telco disputes could kick in late this year

Consumers will have a faster and more affordable avenue to settle disputes with their telcos when an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme kicks in. This could happen as early as the end of this year.

The scheme will address a wide range of disputes, be they over contracts, billing errors or service quality. Customers have been known to lock horns with telcos over huge bills they chalked up in roaming fees, unexplained mobile data charges and compensations for pay-TV and broadband service disruptions.

The final details on implementing the scheme, which arose out of new laws passed in Parliament in November 2016, are being ironed out.

The Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) received about 2,000 such complaints annually in the past two years.

The regulator has launched a public consultation on the scheme that proposes a two-stage process to settle the disputes: Mediation is to be carried out first, and if the issue is still not resolved, a third party will make a formal ruling .

IMDA has proposed that consumers bear 10 per cent of the case fees, with telcos bearing the rest. The fees for consumers are estimated to start from $10 for mediation and $50 for adjudication.

The authority also proposed that consumers first approach their telcos to resolve the dispute. Consumers will also need to serve a "notice of intention to mediate" on their telcos at least 14 days before they initiate the ADR process.

The next step is a two-hour mediation process. If the telco and the consumer reach an agreement, the settlement terms will be binding on both sides.

Otherwise, an adjudication process will kick in, which will be handled by a third party to be appointed by IMDA. If the consumer accepts the ruling, the decision will be binding on the telcos. A consumer who does not accept the decision can still turn to the courts or the Small Claims Tribunal.

The authority said the ADR scheme is modelled after similar ones in Britain, Hong Kong and Australia. One of the benefits of the scheme is a dedicated avenue to channel telco-related complaints.

Another advantage for consumers is that IMDA can force telcos to participate in mediation and impose penalties if they do not comply, under the amended Telecommunications Act and the IMDA Act, both of which were enacted in February last year.

Currently, consumers can turn to the Singapore Mediation Centre or consumer watchdog Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) for mediation. But they must pay a fee of at least $267.50 for the mediation centre, and at least $37.45 for Case. The watchdog said the number of telco-related complaints it received has fallen from 168 in 2015 to 85 last year.

However, the Singapore Mediation Centre and Case cannot force telcos to the negotiating table.

In addition, the ADR scheme is significantly cheaper than turning to the courts or Small Claims Tribunal - a consumer's last resort - to force telcos to come to the table for settlement.

Consumers such as IT consultant Larry Leong, 50, felt the current regime can be improved. He has had run-ins with his telco over service disruptions overseas.

Singtel, StarHub and MyRepublic said they will provide feedback to IMDA by the end of the consultation on Feb 28. M1 said that current avenues for dispute resolution are adequate.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'New way to settle telco disputes could kick in late this year'. Print Edition | Subscribe