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'Unilateral' bill hikes put mobile network providers under consumer protection spotlight
MAJOR telephone operators are under close scrutiny from consumer protection groups due to ongoing price hikes – as much as €5 a month this year alone.
Orange, Vodafone and Movístar – particularly for customers with packages that include landlines, mobiles, internet and TV – have upped their tariffs without consultation and claimed to be offering greater connection speeds or 'more exclusive' television content in exchange.
In some cases, download limits have been applied out of the blue with penalties charged for exceeding them, even where customers' actual internet use has not changed – leaving them with bills for use in Spain higher than they received just months earlier in roaming mode.
Telefónica Spain, which owns the mobile brand Movístar, says the price rises are due to the 'growing demand' in mobile data bandwidth.
“We're gradually adjusting prices in line with consumers needing more from their service,” said Luis Miguel Gilpérez, company chairman.
Vodafone's strategy manager David Sola says: “Any customer whose tariff has changed is perfectly free to choose a different one – they have a great deal of choice.”
Consumer giant FACUA says the rising costs are 'not circumstantial', because they do not happen 'every few years' – rather 'every few months'.
“There's no excuse,” said spokesman Miguel Ángel Serrano.
“Companies' only purpose is financial, nothing to do with customers' needs. No consumer would be against a unilateral change if it was for their benefit and met their requirements.”
He calls for customers to file claims with the consumer authorities in their region.
FACUA and the OCU will not act – or even advise – unless a customer pays a yearly membership fee of around €70, but council-run consumer officers, known as OMIC, will generally help.
Operators claim the price increases are covered by Article 9 of Bill of Law, or Royal Decree number 899 of 2009, which states that providers must inform customers of any contract amendments with at least a month's notice and advise them of their right to end the contract without penalty if they are not happy.
But FACUA says the companies have ignored the first section of Article 9, which says contract conditions cannot be modified except for valid reasons already provided for in the terms and conditions.
According to the National Markets and Competition Commission (CNMC), three operators hold the lion's share of the telecommunications market in Spain – nearly 85% of the mobile internet market, at least – since Vodafone merged with ONO and Orange with Jazztel.
Movístar holds a 42.12% market share of ADSL, whilst Orange has 28.67% and Vodafone 23.3%.
The mobile internet market is shared almost equally between the three – 27.96% to Movístar, 27.3% to Orange and 27.04% to Vodafone.
The OCU recalls that mobile companies are no longer able to 'lock in' customers subject to penalty clauses for any reason.
Customers, in general, have not been told of any changes in their contracts, and most are confused by the gradually increasing prices for no apperent reason.
Movístar's Fusión packages, which started at €110 and were capped at €195 as at the beginning of 2017, now start at €115 and the most expensive 'premium' option is €200.
Other, cheaper services like the Fusión Contigo 50MB package went up from €50 to €55.
Orange has applied increases of up to €5 for its 'Love Familia Sin Límites' package, and €2 for its Love Esencial, Love Sin Límites and Love Familia Esencial.
Jazztel, now part of Orange, has upped its line rental prices for May from €20.99 to €22.99.
Since April, Vodafone has pushed up its mobile phone tariffs by €2 and its package deals by between €3 an €5, in exchange for more GBs and other 'benefits'.
Also, Vodafone has begun to charge €2.50 for certain transactions via its customer service centre, such as checking PIN or PUK numbers, enquiring about contract lock-in clauses, requesting copies of bills, and changing bank account numbers or billing addresses.
All these price rises are net of IVA, meaning the actual hikes range from €2.42 to €6.05 a month.
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