ICASA lays down the law on data expiry

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The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) is laying down the law when it comes to data expiry dates and out-of-bundle billing practices for telecoms operators.

The regulator published new draft regulations yesterday. They include new timeframes for the expiry of data bundles and call for consumers to be able to opt-out or opt-in to out-of-bundle pricing on data, voice and SMS services. This in comparison to the current common practice that customers are automatically switched to out-of-bundle pricing once their data or voice bundles have been depleted.

The draft regulations were gazetted yesterday and interested parties need to comment on them by 19 September. The draft regulations add extra clauses to the "End-User and Subscriber Service Charter Amendment Regulations 2016" published on 1 April 2016.

ICASA has laid out a proposal for the validity periods for data, with the shortest being 10 days for bundles between 1MB and 50MB, and the longest being 24 months for 20GB and above.

This will be a big change from how mobile operators currently operate in terms of data expiry. Most SA telcos offer specials whereby customers can get small amounts of data for a low price but the data is valid for only a very short period of time, sometimes even as short as one hour.

Larger data bundles are usually valid for around 30 days, but the new regulations would up that to between 60 days and 24 months for bundles between 500MB and 20GB.

Proposed validity periods for data

Data bundle sizes

Validity periods

1MB - 50MB

10 days

50MB - 500MB

30 days

500MB - 1GB

60 days

1GB - 5GB

90 days

5GB - 10GB

180 days

10GB - 20GB

12 months

20GB >

24 months

The draft regulation also says operators must notify end-users - via SMS, USSD or any other applicable means - seven days prior to the expiry date of the data.

"A licensee must provide end-users with an option to roll over unused data when end-users recharge with data bundles before the expiry date," the ICASA document adds.

Bill shock

Another major change would be that operators would have to provide a mechanism for customers "to opt-in for or opt-out of bundle charges when their data bundle is depleted". This would avoid out-of-bundle bill shock.

"A licensee must automatically disconnect the end-user from out-of-bundle data usage until such time that the end-user gives express consent or authorisation," the draft regulation reads.

ICASA's proposed regulations also require operators to send "data depletion notifications on regular intervals through SMS, USSD or any other applicable means". It says the intervals must be at 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% depletion levels of data bundles.

Users must be sent warning notifications when his/her data bundle has completely run out and must be provided with an option to buy additional data bundles upon depletion and "not defaulted automatically to out of bundle data charges upon depletion of his/her data bundles".

Vodacom told ITWeb it is aware of the draft regulation gazetted by ICASA and it will actively participate in ICASA's consultation process.

"Vodacom is committed to bringing down data prices and has brought down effective data pricing by 44% over the last three years. Through the likes of Just4You, which offers customers hourly, daily, weekly and monthly bundles, Vodacom has made significant inroads in recent years in its pricing transformation journey," says Vodacom spokesperson Byron Kennedy.

"With regard to out-of-bundle billing, Vodacom reiterates its position on this matter in that it remains fully committed to addressing this and has already started to implement its plans. We remain committed to consulting with the regulator in our shared quest to continuously address customer needs and improve the customer experience," Kennedy adds.

MTN SA's GM for regulatory affairs, Moses Mashisane, told ITWeb the telco had noted the proposed amendments and MTN "is applying its mind to the proposed amendments and will submit comments to ICASA within the stipulated deadline".

Cell C also says it is in the process of studying the draft regulations.

"Once we have had the opportunity to properly interrogate the document, we will make a comment. Obviously, Cell C will make submissions to the regulator within the stipulated timeframe," the telco told ITWeb.

Telkom's chief marketing officer, Cambridge Mokanyane, says the telco's "subject matter experts" are in the process of scrutinising the draft regulations.

"We will comment on it when it is appropriate to do so. Telkom has consistently reviewed its products and pricing and will continue to do so with due consideration for any and all mechanisms that are aimed at further reducing the cost to communicate," Mokanyane told ITWeb.

#DataMustFall drive

Last week, ICASA's acting chairperson, Rubben Mohlaloga, told the Select Committee on Communications and Public Enterprises that the regulator was looking at tackling "crazy" out-of-bundle mobile data rates and that he believed "there is a need for a decrease in the average price per MB".

His appearance in front of the committee came after ongoing complaints from the public about the cost to communicate in SA. The topic gained traction last year when South Africans took to social media to complain about high mobile data costs under the banner #DataMustFall.

This resulted in Parliament's portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services spending two days hearing submissions from the communications department, ICASA, civil society organisations, telecoms operators and the public on the cost to communicate using mobile data.

Yesterday's draft regulations publication was ICASA's latest interventions to tackle the issue. In July, it gazetted a notice "of its intention to conduct an inquiry to determine the priority markets in the electronic communications sector". ICASA says it aims to finalise the inquiry on or before 31 March 2018.

Voice and SMS

In terms of voice and SMS services, the new draft regulations say a telecoms licensee must send notifications for voice and SMS usage intervals to customers at the 50%, 75%, 90% and 100% service depletion points.

"A licensee must provide end-users who are on post-paid/hybrid tariff plans with an option to buy additional voice services or SMS services upon depletion of such services.

"Where an end-user who is on a post-paid/hybrid tariff plan does not buy additional voice services or SMS services, the licensee will disconnect the end-user from access to services and allow such end-users to only use emergency services and customer care services," the draft regulation says.

ICASA also says licensees need to run education awareness campaigns aimed at educating end-users on the use of smartphones, educating end-users on how to use data, and educating end-users on a broad range of products and services offered. Telcos need to run four quarterly education campaigns per year.

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