Regulators run for cover as telecoms firms benefit from 'unlimited' claims

Ireland’s telecoms regulator will not step in to stop mobile and broadband operators confusing consumers with claims of ‘unlimited’ data.

A spokeswoman for ComReg told the Irish Independent that although the State body has a duty to enforce “consumer protection” with regard to operators, the matter is one for the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI).

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The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) also said that it is unlikely to take action on the issue.

The ASAI, which is funded by the advertising industry and has little enforcement power, now says that its review of operators’ unlimited ad claims may not occur right away, a spokeswoman said.

The standoff leaves consumers who respond to an ad promising unlimited, ‘no-limits’ or ‘all-you-can-eat’ data with no recourse if they exceed the hidden monthly limits of these broadband services.

Over the past two weeks, a number of customers have contacted the Irish Independent, outlining penalty charges or ‘throttling’ on broadband and mobile services, due to exceeding hidden limits on unlimited data services.

Under Irish law, both ComReg and the CCPC have the power to issue a compliance notice to telecoms operators, under the Consumer Protection Act.

However, both have signalled that they have no plans to do so, instead arguing that it is a matter for the ASAI’s voluntary code of conduct.

“Complaints about the advertisement of unlimited downloads while operating a fair-usage policy and not referring to this in the advertising should be raised with the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland,” a spokeswoman for ComReg said.

She added that this was ComReg’s position, even though: “ComReg has a consumer protection function with regard to the contractual information that is provided by service providers… Contractual details of applicable prices and tariffs must be provided to consumers in a form that is clear, comprehensible and easily accessible.”

At present, the ASAI allows broadband and mobile firms to describe their services as unlimited on billboards, in television advertisements and on websites if the hidden data cap affects no more than 1pc of a firm’s customers.

Companies can do this by describing the data limits, which can vary substantially by provider, as fair-use policies.

But the term has sparked dozens of complaints to the ASAI in recent years, with some customers expressing shock that an unlimited service is legally allowed to have hidden limits attached to it.

The latest unlimited data service to be launched is Eir’s new mobile service, called No Limits Data, which has a hidden cap of 80GB.

The 80GB fair-use limit does not appear on any ads or on the main section of its website.

When the limit of the No Limits Data service is reached, Eir says that user access would be “slowed down”, otherwise known as throttling.

However, the company declined to say how slow the amended speed would be, or whether people would still be able to access services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and email.

Eir has defended putting a limit on the No Limits Data service, arguing that because 80GB is a high limit, it could still be considered to be “effectively uncapped”.

Other major Irish operators to offer unlimited services with hidden limits include Vodafone, Sky, Three and Virgin Media.

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