On 22 October 2020, the consumer organisation dTest held a roundtable “Current state, future challenges and consumer rights in electronic communications”, during which leading experts discussed the fact that the current state of the Czech electronic communications market is strongly influenced by three factors in particular – the April amendment to the Electronic Communications Act, the ongoing auction of frequencies for fifth generation networks and the pandemic situation.
“The covid-19 disease is opening the scissors wide in society. To those it threatens, and to those for whom it brings enormous opportunity. And operators are on the lucky side. Due to the quite fundamental limitations that anti-epidemic measures have brought and continue to bring, even people who were previously more likely to avoid them are now using the services of operators. And those who used to use them often use them even more,” says Eduarda Hekšová, director of the consumer organisation dTest. Such a leap in demand brings with it big challenges. And these have added to the already dramatically rapid development of technology. Challenges face all parties – operators, consumers, legislation and surveillance.
In the past few years, several amendments have been made to the Electronic Communications Act with the aim of facilitating customer mobility and significantly compensating for their weaker position, which is more evident in this sector than in others. However, neither increased mobility nor greater transparency have yet brought the expected competition among operators for customers through pricing and quality of customer service. Nevertheless, the mobile market is showing some improvements, with more attractive offers for customers, the emergence of unlimited or higher mobile data plans and falling prices. Yet operators’ offers lag behind neighbouring countries, as seen in Poland and Austria, where comparable services are available to ordinary consumers at list prices lower than in the Czech Republic.
One of the problems in the mobile market is the distortion of tariffs caused by offers to large customers and family tariffs derived from these offers, non-public group offers and retention offers. “Tariff distortion creates a glaring inequity to the disadvantage of disadvantaged consumers, particularly vulnerable households and seniors. The injustice then causes frustration with all the social, political and health consequences, which is a totally undesirable state of affairs to which public authorities should be sensitive,” explains Eduarda Hekšová.
An amendment to the Electronic Communications Act in April brought a number of elements strengthening consumer protection – it significantly accelerated the transition to another operator, and virtually abolished contractual penalties for early termination of a fixed-term contract. And not only consumers will soon be able to compare and assess various services in the field of electronic communications in terms of their price and quality directly on the website of the Czech Telecommunications Office.
According to the statistics of the Czech Telecommunications Office, the most frequent problem between the operator and the consumer is the content of the subscription contract and the actual billing of the services provided. This is often caused by consumers themselves, who sign contracts without reading them properly. This is mainly due to the lack of clarity and complexity of the contracts. It is therefore necessary to simplify the information for consumers in order to make it easier to understand.
The priority of the Ministry of Industry and Trade is to complete the implementation of the European Electronic Communications Code, which should enable Czech consumers to benefit from uniform rules binding throughout the European Union. “It is essential to strive to ensure that this implementing amendment to the Electronic Communications Act is passed by the Chamber of Deputies before the elections next year,” emphasises Eduarda Hekšová.
Currently, the biggest challenge for the market is the successful completion of the ongoing auction of frequencies for fifth-generation networks, which is expected to foster competition in the mobile market as well as the rapid development of new networks and technologies. The question is whether the auction, under the conditions set, will indeed bring a strong fourth player that could drive the market forward. Should it fail to do so, the question of price regulation of the wholesale market for access to mobile services arises. While this is a long run, even regulation is a way forward, albeit an unwelcome one from someone’s point of view.
The pandemic situation has brought a spike in demand for telecom services and operators are under a lot of pressure at the moment. But technologically, operators and networks seem to be coping. According to the Mobile Network Operators Association, operators are responding to the current pandemic situation responsibly, especially to the state – for example, sending out millions of free SMS to support the eRouche app, providing call centre operators to assist the Smart Quarantine system, and helping a number of families who are unable to provide online education for their children.Lukáš Zelený, a member of the Council of the Czech Telecommunications Authority, took the lead of the roundtable and commented, “I have made it my task to work to ensure that consumers know that the Czech Telecommunications Authority is part of the complex and opaque structure of Czech supervisory authorities. And above all, that they can turn to it with confidence if they are dealing with a problem. And if we want consumers to have confidence in any authority, we need to work with those who are closest to them, i.e. consumer organisations, which do a very good job.”