MyBroadband recently reported on information received that rogue Wireless Application Service Providers (WASPs) may be unlawfully billing unsuspecting cellular subscribers (http://mybroadband.co.za/news/Cellular/4785.html).
The unlawful billing of cellular subscribers – including new, reissued SIMs – has now been confirmed by Vodacom. According to the cellular provider the results of an investigation have indicated that there are Wireless Application Service Providers (WASPs) who continue to bill customers in contravention of the WASPA Code of Conduct.
“The WASPA Code of Conduct requires that after three failed attempts (i.e. three months) to bill for a content subscription, the content subscription should be cancelled,” Vodacom said.
Vodacom would however not name the WASPs guilty of contravening the WASPA Code of Conduct – information that will be valuable not only to protect consumers but also send a message to other WASPs that this behavior will not be tolerated.
This unlawful billing by WASPs is of particular concern to new Vodacom subscribers who may be issued with a recycled SIM card which is then unknowingly billed by an unscrupulous WASP.
According to an industry source the first article which prompted this investigation by Vodacom also resulted in the cellular provider issuing a warning to all WASPs, threatening to revoke their WASP licenses if the WASPA Code of Conduct is not adhered to.
While it is encouraging to see this pro-active attitude from Vodacom, there are still many issues of concern which this situation has brought to light.
Cellular subscribers at risk
According to an industry source there is nothing stopping a rogue WASP from billing any cellular number it gets its hands on.
The current systems used by the cellular operators and WASPs have no real pro-active protection for consumers against unlawful billing from WASPs, making cellular subscribers vulnerable to abuse.
There is a self-regulatory body in South Africa – the Wireless Application Service Provider Association (WASPA) – but this is an entirely reactive solution where consumers who have been victims of unlawful billing can lodge a complaint.
WASPA is further hamstrung by the fact that it is a voluntary member association which means that its jurisdiction does not extend to non-members. WASPA is doing a good job at reacting to complaints from consumers about its members, and the results of adjudications by the industry body is open for all to see here: http://www.waspa.org.za/code/complaints.php
Vodacom has however confirmed that there are WASPs using its network for content distribution which are not WASPA members. This creates a scenario where Vodacom is unable to rely on WASPA to address certain consumer complaints.
“Although the regulation of content lies within the domain of WASPA, Vodacom can take action against any WASP who uses its network, should any misuse of the network be reported to us,” Vodacom said.
Vodacom further says that the industry itself needs to practice a degree of self-governance through industry governing bodies such as WASPA who are responsible for managing the actions of its various members.
According to one industry player there are many documented cases of WASPs ‘screwing customers’, but he said that it is very uncommon for a WASP to lose their license or contract because of it.
“One only has to look at the high volume of failed transactions to realize that this [WASPA code of conduct and threat of action against it] is not an effective deterrent. Last time I saw these graphs, the ratio of failed vs. successful was about 4 to 1.”
Good news is that the cellular operators appear to have recently requested that WASPs become a WASPA member to operate. “They can only operate if they supply the MNOs with their WASPA membership number,” said WASPA.
No pro-active protection
WASPA’s existence and mandate is undoubtedly of great value to consumers but, since it is really a standards and complaints resolution body, consumers remain vulnerable.
An industry player, who would like to remain anonymous, said that there are various steps which can be taken by cellular providers to protect consumers against rogue WASPs, including:
–Allowing subscribers to block all OBS/EBB billing to their account.
–Ensuring that a more frequent verifiable dialogue between WASP and consumers happens to ensure that consumers are aware that they’re being billed and what they are being billed for
–Introduce qualitative prerequisites before WASPs are allowed to provide services
WASPA said that they fully support pro-active steps to protect consumers. “While WASPA cannot implement any technical protection we make recommendation to the networks and enforce all manner of pro-active consumer protection through our Code of Good Conduct.”
“In addition we employ a Monitor who proactively tests services, scans the media and follows up on issues raised, this culminates in complaints lodged through our very robust and quasi legal complaints system.”
The same vociferous monitoring and pro-active attitude however does not seem to exist with the cellular operators. Implementing the consumer protection measures will mean that WASPs and the cellular providers stand to lose millions in revenue, with the only benefit being consumer protection.
Since pro-active consumer protection systems may be complicated and costly to develop, and do not have the financial appeal of producing an immediate return on investment, it is maybe not surprising that that cellular companies have not yet put pro-active consumer protection measures in place.
New subscribers at risk
It has been confirmed that re-issued SIM cards are being billed unlawfully by WASPs due to the previous subscriber’s activities. The only recourse for the new subscriber is to lodge a complaint and hope that it will be resolved in a timely manner.
There currently does not seem to be any guarantee that new, recycled SIM cards are ‘clean’. Vodacom said that since SIM-cards which are made available for re-use would have been inactive on the network for a period of longer than 7 months, these SIM-cards should not be billed for content services due to the previous SIM-card owner requesting content.
“A WASP who continues to bill a customer for content after a period of 3 months of unsuccessful billing, could only do so in contravention of the WASPA Code of Conduct,” said Vodacom.
But as has been established, some WASPs are indeed contravening the WASPA Code of Conduct which is of little consolation to new subscribers who trust that their airtime will not disappear without warning.
Some good news is that Vodacom and WASPA are currently working on various mechanisms that will proactively sample WASP services to monitor quality and billing integrity.
Vodacom has also given a firm commitment that it will credit customers for any content which was illegally billed.
As the situation stands now nearly all the responsibility for detecting and reporting unlawful billing by WASPs falls firmly on the shoulders of the consumer.
It is therefore advisable that you frequently check your airtime and billing and complain immediately to either WASPA or your cellular operator when you detect something out of the ordinary.