[bangkokpost] Subscribers and users of the internet and mobile phone services in Thailand and in other Southeast Asian countries are victimised by identical problems.
As these services are run by just a handful of operators, consumers are left with limited options to accept whatever packages are on offer.
This way users are either being directly or indirectly ripped off and "deceived" by the unfair practices of telecom giants, concluded consumer advocates and telecom experts at Thursday's conference on telecommunications and consumer protection in Chiang Rai.
Led by the Southeast Asian Consumer Council, delegates from Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore joined their counterparts from Hong Kong, Australia and Spain to discuss the related problems at length, from billing inaccuracies to spam marketing messages, and ways to solve them.
What was worse was, they said, while consumers have been taken advantage of by the industry, little has been done by the business sector and regulators to provide them with better services and prevent potential health impacts.
Their message is: Unless national regulators and governments step up pressure on telecom giants, consumers will continue to bear the brunt of unfair practices and risk sicknesses like developing cancerous brain tumours.
In Thailand, about 90% of mobile phone users choose pre-paid services, says the National Telecommunications Commission. Currently, there are 58 million mobile phone numbers in use in the country.
But all the current operators offer non-refundable, time-limited prepaid packages, meaning users involuntarily lose their money if they cannot use up all the credit.
"Buyers may be unaware that this is unfair because the credit unused each time may not be that high," said NTC commissioner Sudharma Yoonaidharma.
"But there are tens of millions of pre-paid users in Thailand. This means there could be up to a hundred thousand baht of unused credit, as free revenue, going into the pockets of operators," he said. "This is the money that should be returned to buyers."
Earlier, DTAC, a Thailand-based mobile network operator, charged its post-paid customers a reactivation fee should they want to resume the service terminated due to late payment. The NTC later ordered it to scrap the practice after countless complaints from consumers.
In the Philippines, the level of customers being ripped off by telecom giants is excessive, said Filipino delegate Reilee Joy Dulay. Common complaints include deceptive and exorbitant rates, a pricing scheme and expiration dates on prepaid cards, she said. Mobile phone users there are charged for each unsolicited or spam message sent by the operator. The situation is not much different in Indonesia where there are just 12 operators providing services for 230 million people, said Indah Suksmaningsih of the Indonesian Consumers' Organisation.
Operators mislead people through advertisements. Buyers, therefore, are not well-informed of hidden terms and conditions on charges, she said.
For the internet, the conference was told the cost of broadband service in the Philippines is too high and thus a heavy burden for low- to medium-income people. Internet users in Indonesia have to put up with poor quality of services. In Thailand, the government recently asked the operators to halve their pricing of broadband services only to receive a cold response.
What is the same for the three countries is the telecom industry is dominated by just a handful of operators, leaving buyers with limited choices.
"The number of users continues to increase dramatically while that of service providers has rarely expanded over the past years," said Mr Sudharma of the NTC.
The problem is that investment in infrastructure development in this industry is high, meaning there is room for only a limited number of players, he said.
This market domination is what really allows the operators to force unfair conditions on consumers, he said.
Seah Seng Choon, executive director of the Consumers Association of Singapore, agreed, saying national governments needed to bring about more liberalisation to encourage more providers in this sector.
While businesses enjoy less competition in this highly profitable industry, the majority have not invested that much in improving the quality of their services.
The conference was told that users have had to tolerate poor quality services, such as having their communications cut off without warning, or asked to pay more for high-speed internet only to receive a lower level service instead.
What is more worrying, said electrical engineer Sumeth Vongpanitlerd, is that operators are not willing to invest more to safeguard the health of users.
As wireless and mobile technologies cannot do without the installation of relay antennas at the community level, electro magnetic radiation released by the antennas could endanger the health of those regularly exposed to it, he said.
Though there is no scientific proof that it can cause headaches and brain cancer, health experts have not ruled out the possibility, he said.
But operators can minimise the risks by increasing the number of antennas as that could reduce the radiation's density level. "Operators don't want to do that because they would have to invest so much more. If this is obliged by law, potential health risks would be eliminated. It's up to the government whether it wants to take action," he said.
Telecom operators in hot water - Conference agrees users being ripped off