Go raibh maith agat a Chathaoirligh agus tá muid buíoch as ucht an chuiridh bheith i láthair inniu. I thank the Cathaoirleach and on behalf of the Commission for Communications Regulation, we are happy to appear before the committee to discuss consumer complaints about telecommunications companies, protecting customers and potential avenues for redress. I am joined today by my fellow commissioners and Ms Barbara Delaney, who is our director in this area.
ComReg is the national regulatory authority, NRA, for electronic and postal communications. We promote competition and investment in the sector. We uphold end user rights and we manage the radio spectrum and of our strategic intents, it is key to ensure that consumers can choose and use communication services with confidence. This is an important aspect of ComReg’s activities. It has had a greater profile in recent months because of the significant problems that Eir customers have had getting in touch with the company. While any call centre can experience occasional problems with waiting times, Eir customers faced unacceptable waiting times over an extended period during the last couple of months.
It might be helpful if I start by providing the committee with a brief overview of ComReg's role in upholding the rights of consumers.
Our functions in upholding end-user rights derive mainly from EU legislation. Our role includes both sector-specific rights and rights derived from general consumer protection legislation. We provide information to consumers and a redress facility when they cannot resolve complaints with their service providers. We take action against service providers that fail to meet their obligations or uphold the rights of consumers.
One of the important matters we oversee is ensuring that it is easy for consumers to switch to alternative service providers. We focus our consumer-related activities on issues where there has been greatest harm to consumers, and those areas which have given rise to the greatest number of complaints to ComReg. In recent years, the main issues we have been dealing with have involved matters such as billing, switching, customer contracts and problems with premium rate services. The following are examples of actions we have taken. The information we provide to consumers assists them to make informed choices. To this end we have: conducted awareness campaigns to inform consumers about areas such as complaints handling, mobile experience, premium rate services, among others; and published statistics relating to the number of complaints and queries received by ComReg’s consumer line. We have broken these statistics down to give information on a per-operator basis.
Our consumer line deals with individual queries from consumers. This includes informing them about their general rights regarding how to complain to their operators and how to escalate complaints to ComReg if they are not satisfied. We provide online interactive tools and information such as our price comparison tool and our mobile coverage map. We make sure that consumers have redress when things go wrong. For example, we require service providers to have a code of practice for complaints handling. The codes of practice must include a telephone number and other channels for logging complaints. They must adhere to maximum timelines for dealing with complaints and they must inform customers that they can complain to ComReg if they are not satisfied with the complaint resolution.
When customers are not satisfied with the way an operator has resolved their complaint, they can escalate the complaint to ComReg. We then contact the service provider on the customer’s behalf. The complaint is typically reviewed by the service provider’s escalation team. Consumers who wish to call ComReg’s line can dial 01-8049668 or email ComReg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ComReg offers dispute resolution for consumers who remain dissatisfied with their operator’s response generally, after all the complaint handling procedures have been exhausted. We ensure that consumers can switch providers easily in order that they may exercise choice and take advantage of alternative offers from competitors. To this end, we have implemented EU law mandating number portability for fixed and mobile phones so that customers can change service provider without having to get a new number. Customers can deal exclusively with their new provider and the new provider will cancel their old service on their behalf. We also ensure compliance with EU law mandating that customers should not be penalised for switching if they are out of contract and that there are no other unreasonable barriers to switching.
When service providers fulfil their consumer obligations, this benefits their customers and it reduces the number of queries and complaints that their call centres have to deal with. ComReg takes enforcement action when we consider that service providers are not fulfilling their obligations. In the past two years, we concluded and published the details of over 25 cases of non-compliance, including prosecutions and substantial fines.
I will turn to the recent problems with Eir customer care. We have experienced a growth in complaints to ComReg this year, largely as a result of consumers complaining about problems contacting Eir. In the first nine months of 2020, ComReg has resolved 5,354 complaints, two thirds of which, 3,477, came from Eir customers. ComReg has taken a number of steps to mitigate the impact on customers. We continue to ensure that our contact centre was able to answer queries from Eir customers, including informing them about how to complain to Eir and that they can complain to ComReg if they are unable to make contact with Eir. We provide information on our website, including the phone number and web address for submitting complaints to Eir. The web address is www.comreg.ie. We continue to engage on a fortnightly basis with the Eir CEO to understand the status of its care operation and the remediation plans. It is important to note that it is Eir’s responsibility to fix the underlying problems with its customer care operation. It is Eir that hires and trains care agents, decides on their mandates and incentives and provides the IT systems. ComReg will continue to press Eir to resolve these matters expeditiously.
Looking to the future, and in light of the significant problems with Eir’s call answering times, we have considered what additional steps we could take, and what additional powers would be useful. This consideration has taken into account the changes to the regulatory framework that will come into force when the new European electronic communications code is transposed into Irish law. This new European legislation will replace much of ComReg's existing legislation for electronic communications. The new laws will consolidate and reform the framework for the regulation of telecommunications regulations across the EU. In this directive, telecommunications are called electronic communications services, ECS, and electronic communications networks, ECN.
In terms of information provision, we consider that it would be useful to provide consumers with more information on matters such as quality of service and customer care complaint resolution metrics. This initiative will not only ensure transparency but will also ensure that the data we publish is meaningful and comparable.
In terms of complaint handling, we are monitoring whether service providers are implementing their codes of practice. We consider that it would be useful for legislation to provide for specific sanctions and consequences when service providers fail to implement their complaint handling codes, both generally and in the case of individual customers.
In terms of service providers other obligations, the European electronic communications code will give consumers some useful new rights, including transparency on contract terms, rights when switching broadband service and in respect of missed appointments. We have already published initial advice to service providers on how they should interpret end user obligations in anticipation of the implementation of the code. There are also consumer rights granted by the unfair commercial practices directive. ComReg does not have the power to enforce these rights for consumers of electronic communications services and we consider that this would be a useful addition to our responsibilities.
It is important that ComReg should be in a position to impose much larger sanctions that would be a genuine deterrent to non-compliance. This would give service providers a greater incentive to proactively uphold end user rights, rather than to come into compliance only after ComReg has taken action. The programme for Government contains a commitment to give ComReg the power to impose administrative financial penalties. We welcome this commitment by the Government and other parties and we hope that this important legislative change can be implemented as soon as possible. Promoting the interests of consumers is a core part of ComReg’s reason for being. The recent problems faced by Eir customers in contacting customer care are completely unacceptable. We have used our existing powers as much as we can to assist customers and we are in discussions with the Government about what additional powers would be useful.
I want to mention the efforts of thousands of employees across the whole telecommunications industry, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic to ensure that customers and businesses have been able to use the Internet to support work, education and social life. These workers have made a major contribution to the well-being of society and Eir's recent customer care problems do not invalidate the value of their work. We will be pleased to answer any questions that members have and I thank the committee for allowing me to make this statement of behalf of ComReg.