Mobile Networks Continue to Exploit Clients Under ICASA’s Watch

By Staff Writer    14-Mar-2022 22:01 UTC+02:00

In 2019, after many years of complaining about disappearing airtime, mobile network subscribers were relieved when the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) implemented new regulations that prevented mobile network operators from automatically deducting airtime when users ran out of data. After this, one would expect mobile networks to learn what constitutes fair/unfair business practices and ensure that all their new products are in line with the principles of fairness that ICASA’s regulations seek to enforce. However, that is not the case. Some mobile networks continue to use systems that exploit clients, putting profit before ethics and waiting for complaints before doing the right thing. We have compiled a list of unfair practices by mobile networks that we believe ICASA should look into and make the necessary amendments to their regulations.

1. Automatic Deduction of Airtime on Running Out of Voice Bundle

It is surprising that ICASA still allows mobile networks to deduct airtime when a user’s voice bundle is finished, without asking for permission. Voice bundles should be regulated by the same regulations that apply to data bundles. The purpose of buying a voice bundle is to save airtime. Therefore, if a user initiates a call using a voice bundle, their airtime should be protected. Vodacom does have an out-of-bundle limit lock which enables users to set the maximum amount of airtime that can be used when they have run out of voice bundles. However, this option is hidden in the services menu that is accessible by dialing *135#, and the default maximum amount is not set at R0.00 as it should be. MTN currently does not give its users this option for voice bundles. ICASA regulations should require that users who had a voice bundle be given an option to opt in to out-of- bundle rates before their airtime can be deducted.

2. Lack of Transparency on Limited-use Data Bundles

There are data bundles that can only be used to access specific services and not others. Mobile networks do not always make it clear what services can be accessed with certain data bundles, resulting in users buying bundles they won’t be able to use. While it is easy for one to know what services they will be able to access online when for example they buy a 500MB Whatsapp bundle, or a 1GB social bundle, it is not easy to tell what a 10GB Work from Home bundle will give one access to. There are clients who buy the WFH bundles for the purpose of reading and sending emails on Gmail, Outlook, etc, unaware that these services cannot be accessed with these bundles.

A while ago an MTN client bought a 100MB WFH bundle. After attempting to connect to the internet with it he was redirected to the “Nofunds” web page. He then contacted MTN to find out what the problem was, and this was MTN’s response: “Please note that you can connect with the home bundle to Zoom, WebEx, Google classroom teams and Skype only.” ICASA should make sure that this information is given to clients on the purchase menu, before they waste their money, because current regulations essentially allow mobile networks to steal from their clients and get away with it. Most networks do not do refunds, which enables them to generate billions from services never rendered.

3. Tricking Clients into Buying Airtime with Constantly Changing Special Offers

A Vodacom client once bought airtime with the intention of purchasing a 1GB bundle he had just seen listed under the “Just 4 U” offers. Immediately after loading airtime (within one minute), he tried to purchase the bundle but it was no longer there. There were new, expensive bundles only. The system had adjusted the offers to suit the client’s new airtime balance. The client felt conned and contacted Vodacom to ask for a refund. Vodacom said to the client, “Please note that the ‘just 4 u’ offers are subject to change at any time. Kindly be advised that you will not be able to get a refund. What we can advise is that you look at the other offers we have”.

ICASA should not allow such trickery to continue unchecked. Clients should be able to reserve offers for a certain period of time to allow them to purchase airtime. Alternatively, expiry times can be shown next to each special offer so that clients don’t load airtime for offers that are about to vanish.

4. Failure to Extend Data Bundle Validity Following Network Outages

There are times when mobile networks fail to provide internet connection to their clients due to a variety of reasons. Under these circumstances, the expiry times of data bundles often remain the same, as if clients had uninterrupted access to the internet. This is not acceptable. If there is evidence that a network was inaccessible in a particular area for a certain period of time, clients in that area should either be refunded or given extra time to use their bundles.

In addition to network outages, slow internet speeds should also be taken into account before users who have expiring data bundles are disconnected. For example, if a user starts a 500MB download at 11:30pm to try and use up all the daily data they purchased, that download should be allowed to complete after midnight if it is still active by the time the bundle expires because 30 minutes is enough time to download a 500MB file at reasonable connection speeds.

It is important for ICASA to tighten its regulations on mobile operators a bit more to improve the quality of the services they provide to their customers. Refunds and extensions on the validity of data bundles should be commonplace in such businesses where service provision is not always guaranteed.

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