On the occasion of the publication of its 2022 annual report the Mediation Service looks back to its 30 years of existence and its equally long experience in handling complaints in the telecommunications sector. Since 1993 we have handled a total of a little over 420,000 complaints in the context of our missions. Since 2018 we are witnessing a downward trend for the evolution of the number of complaints. Nevertheless, the Mediation Service notices an increase within certain categories of complaints and issues a number of recommendations in its annual report.
In 2022, the Mediation Service for Telecommunications received 10,574 written complaints and in addition answered approximately 6,000 requests for information in the context of its telephone helpdesk. This represents a decrease in the number of complaints compared to 2021 (13,355 complaints). This decrease regards both the mediation complaints (from 10,648 in 2021 to 8,605) and the complaints regarding the malicious use of communications networks such as harassment by telephone (from 2,706 in 2021 to 1,969). In 96.91% of the mediation complaints it was possible to reach an acceptable solution for the telecommunication user through an amicable settlement. In the context of the requests for identification of suspected perpetrators of malicious calls and messages, it was possible to identify the perpetrator in nearly half of the cases.
In 2022, 367 requests for mediation were registered (+32% compared to 2021), submitted by consumers who had been identified as vulnerable users. The complaints in particular regard fraud through premium-rate numbers (090X, …), phishing, digital invoicing (e-invoicing) and interference of fixed lines.
The Mediation Service wishes to emphasize once more the need for operators to ensure an easily accessible and efficient telephone helpdesk. In this context the Office of the Ombudsman pleads for the implementation of a dedicated policy for vulnerable users by the operators. After the example of an initiative in the United Kingdom, operators could be requested to appoint a specific person as point of contact for requests of vulnerable telecom users.
Finally, the Office of the Ombudsman finds that the e-invoicing trend is winning ground rapidly. Some categories of subscribers need a guiding hand in this digital transition and more specifically our elders who are sometimes not or insufficiently familiar with the new information technologies. In any case, operators have to respect the freedom of choice of the consumer, regarding the format of the invoices (electronic or paper).
In 2022, 155 complaints were submitted to the Mediation Service, following the roll-out of fibre. The main issues found were the compulsory switch to fibre, without explanations or consent from the subscriber, a price increase following the switch to fibre and the issues relating to the installation and activation of this new technology (facade right).
A number of users on the contrary, complain about the waiting times for a fibre connection. The latter wish to enjoy a faster and more stable Internet connection. That does not only apply to private persons but also to companies situated in rural or remote areas.
In light of the intensification of the fibre roll-out on Belgian territory, the Office of the Ombudsman invites the players in the field to safeguard the rights and interests of the end-users. On the one hand by honouring the obligations regarding transparency and communication upon installations and activations of new subscription formulas and on the other hand by reconciling the facade right of the telecommunications company with the building owners’ right of use.
In light of the current situation (increasing energy costs, inflation, etc.) it is becoming ever more important for telecommunications customers to avoid additional fees and to keep their invoices in check. In 2022, 4,570 telecom users lodged a complaint about an irregularity regarding their monthly subscription, such as unexpected consumption charges, additional one-time fees, discounts that have not been granted and administrative issues to be dealt with. The complainants’ testimonies show that the complainants were not informed or informed too late and/or did not have sufficient means to avoid additional costs.
A clear trend to shift the responsibility towards the user is standing out as well. The latter is considered to be sufficiently informed through an operator’s application or website, while the Mediation Service notices in the complaints that this information is not always reliable. This is the operators’ way of making their customers accountable, whereas the latter do not always know how to manage such tools, for instance elders and vulnerable users in particular.
The Office of the Ombudsman also pleads for an improved information of the user, for instance via real-time notifications for mobile (roaming) consumption and by blocking third-party services (M-commerce) by including a mandatory opt-in for those services in the telecommunication contracts.
The ongoing pandemic measures in 2021, such as structural working from home and distance learning, once again demonstrated the need for well-functioning telecom services.
However, on the basis of the complaints received in 2021, the Telecommunications Ombudsman found that both switching operators (via Easy Switch) and the right to social tariff and e-invoicing in particular caused difficulties for vulnerable users.
The Easy Switch mandate was created to facilitate the transition between operators for telecom users. Despite this, the Ombudsman service notes an increase in the number of complaints and this procedure is still not sufficiently regarded as the standard procedure for changing operators. Subscribers are still too often confronted with double invoicing and are too often sent from box to wall by the operators involved.
Several structural problems came to light in the complaints regarding the social tariff. The Ombudsman continues to believe that many complaints could be avoided if the social rate were automatically granted to all beneficiaries. This would not only ease administrative formalities for users and operators, but would also lead to greater fairness. It would also ensure that the social tariff is not unfairly withdrawn when beneficiaries change their subscription, switch to another operator or move.
Electronic invoicing is becoming increasingly common in the telecommunications sector and is on the rise. However, e-invoicing is still proving to be a real challenge for a large part of the population, especially for some elderly people. A transition to digital invoicing therefore requires a gradual approach and guidance of the operators for certain, vulnerable users.
Attractive advertisements about ‘unlimited’ surfing, calling or texting must be clarified to the end user before the start of a subscription if restrictions or a Fair Use Policy would nevertheless apply to the proposed offer. After all, a reduction in internet speed or even a sudden blockage of services must be avoided in times of structural homeworking.
In 2021, the Telecommunications Ombudsman Service registered 13,355 written requests for intervention. The number of complaints shows a decreasing trend (-4.87%) compared to 2020 (then 14,039 complaints). This decrease was noticeable both in mediation complaints (from 11,142 in 2020 to 10,648) and in complaints relating to telephone harassment (from 2897 in 2020 to 2706).
In 2021, 14,049 cases were analysed, handled and closed, which is an increase compared to 2020 (with 13,676 complaints handled). In 96.96% of the complaints, the telecom user agreed to an amicable settlement.