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Hefty mobile bills should be capped by punters, says Ofcom

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Analysis Ofcom will push for greater EU regulation to tackle steep mobile bills, and voluntary application of that regulation outside the EU, but won't force operators to do anything unless they do nothing.

In a statement (PDF, long, dull, insufficiently shocking) the regulator reports that data is now the biggest cause of unexpectedly high bills, and that international roaming caused most of the (estimated) 1.4 million surprise billing events that took place between April and September last year.

The EU is already addressing that, and should be passing more regulation in June, but Ofcom wants those rules applied to the rest of the world as well as at home.

Travellers within the EU are already supposed to receive advice on charges for voice, text and data services when their handset first roams onto a network. Data is also capped at €50 and network operators are required to send a text alert when the user hits 80 per cent of that, and cut them off at €50 unless the user requests greater data.

In June the EU is scheduled to extend those rules, as well as bringing in a Eurotariff for roaming data that all operators will be required to offer. That's worked well for voice calls, allowing operators to continue undercutting each other and offering value-added tariffs, but requiring all of them to also offer the Eurotariff as an effective, but not mandated, cap on the rate.

The details of that won't come out until April. Ofcom says that even if the EU doesn't act, it will require UK operators to implement something along those lines. It would also like to see UK operators applying the same rules to customers travelling outside the EU, and to extend the idea to customers at home too.

Restrictions for your own good

If that happens then contract users (and pre-paid, but the issue here is those getting a monthly bill) will be able to opt themselves in to restricted use. So one could decide to cap one's own use at, say, £30 a month, and the operator would be required to send at text when one hits 80 per cent of that, and cut off the phone at 100 per cent. One could then call up and have the cap removed, on demand, but it would require an interaction with the operator and some sort of authentication too.

That would also take the heat off bills generated by stolen phones, which Ofcom reckons is a small problem but one which makes a big difference to the minority it hits. Ofcom would like, eventually, to see the opt-in cap switched to an opt-out system requiring every mobile phone user to set their preferred monthly cap, but it's not going to insist on that just yet.

At home Ofcom has established that excessive billing is largely caused by users' lack of understanding about how they're charged for data - users don't understand why an hour spent viewing YouTube should be more expensive than an hour spent browsing Twitter feeds. That will come as no surprise to anyone who remembers the early days of WAP. Back then networks struggled with the lack of customer understanding with a variety of billing models including by-the-page, by-the-minute and by-the-click, before settling on actual data consumption as the only thing that could be impartially measured and billed for, and set about explaining to customers what that meant.

It seems that conclusion was premature, or the education was impractical as data use expanded beyond the technically-literate (and, more importantly, the technically interested) so an alternative is needed and Ofcom's suggestions seem eminently sensible. ®

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