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Hong Kong mobile operators reacted to the introduction of new regulations on data tariffs on Monday by introducing a 5GB cap on fair usage and threatening to de-prioritise users who go over that limit.

CSL, 3 Hong Kong and SmarTone all put out statements claiming they would continue to offer “unlimited” tariffs with the caveat that network access management would be applied once a 5GB limit was reached.

For SmarTone it was an embarrassing U-turn following customer anger last week at its decision to scrap unlimited plans and roll out a new top-end 2GB package.

It released the following canned statement without a hint of irony:

SmarTone announced today it will continue to offer unlimited local data plans to customers. It is committed to competitive pricing to bolster its reputation for unbeatable customer experiences and best value for money.

To ensure fair network access for all customers and in line with OFTA’s new guidelines for implementation of Fair Usage Policy, SmarTone will apply network access management in real time. Under this new policy, customers on unlimited and other plans who reach 5GB of local data fair usage within a single billing period will be given lower priority to access the network resources for the remainder of that billing period.

CSL and 3 Hong Kong made almost identical announcements, while the other big players – PCCW and China Mobile Hong Kong – have reportedly done away with their unlimited tariffs altogether.

CSL chief marketing officer Mark Liversidge explained that the firm would eventually move to “volume-based pricing” before the year’s end but until then would try to educate customers by providing more information on data usage.

The firm added that while normal broadband usage should not be affected, those exceeding 5GB data usage per month could feel “some impact on data rich applications such as high volume peer-to-peer services”.

Excessive data usage is something operators across the globe are struggling to manage given the increasing popularity of smartphones and the strain these data-hungry devices – and the services users can access on them – are putting on the networks.

Hong Kong regulator the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (OFTA) drew up the new guidelines after numerous user complaints about unlimited data plans which were actually restricted by fair usage policies.

It said that the plans, which were drawn up last November, would help to “enhance the transparency of service information to facilitate better informed consumer choices”.

“Service providers offering unlimited plans without qualifications must ensure that their networks are equipped with sufficient capacity so that they are truly capable of providing unlimited services to the relevant customers,” said an OFTA spokesperson at the time.

While the announcements on Monday may go just far enough to satisfy the regulator, and keep customers happy for a while longer, they can be seen very much as a temporary measure which doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem.

As CSL admitted itself, so-called ‘unlimited’ plans will eventually have to be shelved.

Ovum senior analyst Nicole McCormick went even further, expressing disappointment and surprise at the news.

“Some operators are promising unlimited data which is not truly unlimited at all. This will only undermine trust in the operators,” she told The Reg.

“We believe this a missed opportunity to address a problem that will only grow, and we fail to see the rationale in this decision.” ®

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