SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) on Friday (Aug 5) said consumers may have a specific dispute resolution scheme to turn to if they have individual disputes with their service providers under proposed changes to telecom laws.
According to its press release, MCI is looking for public feedback on proposed changes to the Telecommunications Act and corresponding changes to the Media Development Authority of Singapore Act. The changes aim to improve service quality and better protect consumers, and could kick in from early next year.
One of the changes includes the ministry proposing to empower the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and Media Development Authority (MDA) to establish an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) scheme for the telecommunication and media sectors.
This is because both agencies are only able to facilitate such disputes with their service providers but are unable to mandate solutions, MCI said. The proposed ADR scheme will mandate that specific service providers participate in the scheme, while consumers have the flexibility of choosing to resolve the dispute through ADR or via the courts or Small Claims Tribunal.
One lawyer said the ADR scheme could offer solutions beyond the ambit of the consumer watchdog.
Mr Bryan Tan, a partner at Pinsent Masons MPillay, explained: "CASE currently has very limited powers - either it would mediate, or it would then have to find an avenue under consumer protection laws.
"Probably as a condition of licence for the telcos, (it) would require the telcos to submit the telcos to binding arbitration. And so once that's in place, the legal framework has already been set for this arbitration to take place in a manner which has finality, has efficiency and has a certain level of confidentiality, but at the end of the day sorts out the problem as quickly as possible."
HIGHER FINES FOR CABLE CUT OFFENCES
There will also be proposed changes to the Telecommunications Act to strengthen IDA's regulatory oversight of the industry. This will come in the form of increasing the maximum composite fine from S$5,000 to S$10,000 to more effectively deter future occurrences.
Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim said in February that cable cut incidents have grown steadily, with four incidents in 2013 and 2014 and rising to seven in 2015. He said the increase was due to the rise in the number of road works and construction projects across Singapore.
The last time the compoundable amount was reviewed was in 2004.
MCI also said it is proposing to expand the rent-free Mobile Deployment Space requirement to cover both rooftop and non-rooftop areas. The ministry said that it had observed instances of exclusive arrangements between property owners and telecom licensees.
For example, two years ago, Sports Hub struck an exclusive deal with systems integrator Consistel. With the company hosting all wireless infrastructure at the complex, telcos had to lease equipment from Consistel in order to offer mobile services there. This threatened to leave the stadium disconnected, when all three initially refused the rates demanded.
Thus, MCI is looking to amend the Telecommunications Act to prohibit such exclusive arrangements between developer and/or owner and end users, occupants of buildings or telecom licensees.
MCI said that while such arrangements could give consumers better rates and efficiency from economies of scale, they should not "have the effect of denying end users their choice or access" to the services of their preferred telco.
Ms Lim May-Ann, managing director of TRPC, noted: "These arrangements, as far as I can tell, are private, and therefore not particularly open to the public. It is something which I think has been exploited by facilities owners, and the important thing to ask at this point in time is how IDA is going to retroactively fit these regulations on top of an existing private arrangement."
To improve mobile reception, owners of larger buildings may be required to offer rooftop space to telcos to house their network equipment, if requested, unless there is insufficient space or safety risks, MCI added.
The public consultation paper and procedures for submission of feedback are available on MCI’s online consultation website and the REACH portal from Aug 5. All submissions should reach the ministry no later than 12pm on Aug 24, 2016.
TELCOS RESPOND, SAY THEY WILL PROVIDE FEEDBACK
In response to the proposed changes, telcos Singtel and StarHub said that they will be providing feedback to IDA.
“We are reviewing the details of the consultation paper and will provide our feedback to IDA in due course,” said a Singtel spokesperson.
A StarHub spokesperson added: "In order to roll out networks and deliver services to customers, it is necessary to have fast and straightforward access to space and buildings. Providing customers with high quality services is our priority, and we welcome any initiatives that will facilitate our service delivery. We will provide our response on the proposed amendments to MCI in due course."
Telco M1 said that it supported the amendments on rooftop mobile deployments.
“We are supportive of the IDA’s proposed Telecommunications Act 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,” an M1 spokesperson said.