AFTER writing a new law meant to safeguard cellular phone (celfone) subscribers against cybercrimes, the Congress must pass complementary legislation to stop telecommunications companies (telcos) from pestering their prepaid and postpaid subscribers with poor network signals, overcharges, dropped voice calls, vanishing prepaid loads and other substandard services, according to Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte.
This proposed companion law has to require the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) to come up with a comprehensive and efficient system for subscribers to report their complaints of substandard services by their respective telcos, said Villafuerte, one of the authors of Republic Act (RA) 11934 on the mandatory registration of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) numbers of celfones and other mobile communication devices.
“After passing the new SIM registration law to finally stop our celfone users from falling prey to cybercrimes, it is time for us lawmakers to write a complementary measure, this time to prevent subscribers from being victimized by their own telco providers with below-par services,” Villafuerte said. “While there is considerable competition in the telco business, this lucrative sector is an oligopoly that the state is obliged to keep an eye on.”
Villafuerte said that, “With the number of registered SIMs almost the same as the number of Filipinos, it is all to clear that celfones have become such a vital part of everyone’s daily life that so rarely do you see any adult or teenager without the ubiquitous mobile phone in hand. Hence, the government must ensure that the services being provided by telcos to their subscribers are adequate, affordable and efficient.”
The number of registered SIM users has surpassed the high side of the government target of 100 million to 110 million, with the combined registrants of the three public telecommunications entities (PTEs) hitting 113.969 million when the sign-up period ended last July 30—representing 67.83% of the estimated 168 million SIMs nationwide.
According to the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC), Globe Telecom Inc. accounted for the biggest number of registrants after the seven-month list-up period at 53.727 million; followed by Smart Communications Inc., 52.5 million; and Dito Telecommunity Corp., 7.74 million.
To stop telcos from incessantly inflicting sub-par services on their hapless subscribers, Villafuerte has introduced House Bill (HB) 7982 to protect the interests of Filipino mobile service consumers by regulating prices, ding away with expiration dates on prepaid loads, requiring proper detailed billing of both prepaid and postpaid subscriptions, and providing full mobile number portability.
Other service improvements being sought in HB 7982, which Villafuerte filed with Bicol Saro Rep. Brian Raymund Yamsuan, include offering consumers insurance for their mobile devices, protecting subscribers’ right to privacy, and prohibiting unsolicited commercial advertisements unless allowed by subscribers themselves—and that must be sent by telcos only during business hours.
Proposed penalties against erring telcos range from fines of not less than P1 million but not more than P10 million and/or a suspension or revocation of their legislative franchises and other licenses issued by the NTC.
The House leadership has referred HB 7982, or the “Mobile Subscribers Protection Act,” to the Committee on Information and Communications Technology.
“We have all heard horrendous stories of over-charging by telcos in their subscribers’ bills; slow or poor network signals that cut off important calls; sudden loss of load credits that leave prepaid users wondering what happened to their loads,” he said. “Telcos have time and again delivered below-par services and have failed to genuinely improve such services to the satisfaction of both their prepaid and postpaid subscribers.”
To protect prepaid subscribers, Villafuerte said HB 7982 bars telcos from (1) imposing an expiration period on the validity of the unused prepaid call and text cards of their celfone subscribers, and (2) forfeiting load credits stored in active prepaid celfone accounts.
In connection with this proposed prohibition, the bill requires telcos to refund their prepaid subscribers whose load credits have been forfeited without valid cause.
He said that HB 7982 also aims to prohibit the public disclosure of the personal user information of celfone subscribers—including their history of voice calls and text messages without their explicit permission or a valid court order—and to impose penalties on erring telcos.
The bill also wants to bar telcos and individuals from using personal user data for their marketing or promotional gimmicks without the prior consent of their subscribers.
Under the bill, such violations of a person’s privacy, if used maliciously, would be meted with heavy penalties of as high as P1 million to P10 million, and even the suspension or revocation of the franchises of the erring telco.
An individual who commits this violation shall be punished under the bill with imprisonment of not less than six months but not more than one year, and with a fine of not less than P100,000 but not more than P500,000.
If the offender is a foreigner, the bill states that he or she shall be deported after serving the sentence and paying the fine.
“As part of its duty to protect the rights and interests of consumers, the State can promote their general welfare by enforcing strict but reasonable supervision and regulation of the telecommunications industry,” Villafuerte said. “Towards this end, a minimum standard of service quality shall be set and regulation of prices being charged to subscribers shall be fixed.”
He said the bill “requires telcos to first file petitions before the NTC whenever they intend to implement any changes in the market price ceilings of basic phone services. Affected and concerned parties are allowed, however, to also file petitions with the NTC opposing such plans by telcos to increase mobile service price ceilings.”
The NTC is required under the Villafuerte-Yamsuan bill to “establish such requirements as the Commission considers appropriate to ensure that telcos meet the minimum standards regarding the quality and performance of such services,” which shall include the following:
· The rate of completed/successful calls;
· The acceptable level of noise, or undesirable signals from natural or technological sources, during voice calls;
· Network latency and propagation delay;
· Data drops and unreceived data packets;
· Billing practices; and
· Network latency and propagation delay.
The bill defines “network latency” as the round-trip time it takes for data to travel from the source to the ultimate destination and a response back to the source; and “propagation delay” as the time required for data to travel over networks from the source to the ultimate destination.
Telcos are required under the bill “to furnish their prepaid subscribers with detailed billings, at no cost to the subscribers, on the usage of their mobile cellular phone load credits, through a system created to track such usage, by either presenting their consumed prepaid cards or load credit tracking numbers to designated business centers of the service providers within 7 working days after the requests of the subscribers. Further, in order to fully track and secure the usage by prepaid subscribers of their load credits, a monitoring system for prepaid load subscribers shall therefore be created for this purpose.”
Villafuerte explained that to protect the rights of celfone subscribers, the bill requires telcos to come up with and offer an insurance package to every subscriber upon purchase of a mobile device.
Such an insurance policy will have to cover the mechanical malfunction, loss and theft (including robbery, snatching and any other unlawful taking) of all kinds of mobile devices beyond the manufacturer’s warranty coverage, including tablets and other devices capable of making and receiving calls and text messages.
The insurance coverage shall be effective from the day the insurance policy is purchased, and the coverage shall be sold and offered on a monthly, bi-annual or yearly basis, depending on every subscriber’s choice of mode of payment. The first month of insurance coverage shall be offered free to every subscriber.
HB 7982 allows telcos to devise their respective insurance packages—on their own accord or through partnership with insurance companies—with varying levels of coverage for every mobile device as deemed reasonable and marketable, provided that the said packages or levels of coverage adhere to the regulations prescribed by the NTC in coordination with the Insurance Commission (IC).
As for privacy, the bill prohibits telcos from disclosing personal subscriber information and subscription data, such as history of calls and text messages, without the written and expressed approval of all parties involved or on the basis of a valid court order.
Moreover, telcos are barred from using user information for other purposes, such as promotions and marketing schemes, without the permission of the subscribers.
Unless subscribers have indicated their willingness to receive advertisements and promotional messages, telcos shall not allow companies or individuals access to the subscribers’ celfone numbers for the purpose of advertising and/or promotion.
Once subscribers indicate willingness to receive such advertisements and promotional messages, the bill mandates that these shall be sent or automated to be sent only during business hours. Unsolicited messages beyond 7 PM and before 8 AM are prohibited.
To enable subscribers to file their complaints against their telcos, the bill directs the NTC to establish and administer a system that enables subscribers to register complaints regarding the quality of performance of their telcos.
Telcos are directed, meanwhile, to establish and administer their respective systems that enable their subscribers to inquire and/or register service-related complaints, the subscribers’ accounts or load credits or anything pertaining to the use of the telcos’ services, through all possible means of communication, such as, but not limited to, toll free numbers, physical and electronic mail, and social media (socmed) accounts.