Business Technology

Sunday 25 August 2019

The great 'unlimited data' con

Mobile and broadband customers may face hidden caps on ‘unlimited’ deals
Mobile and broadband customers may face hidden caps on ‘unlimited’ deals
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'No, I checked and it's OK."

"Do we need to put one of those asterisks?"

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"No, the others don't."

"What about the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland?"

"They're not fussy."

"ComReg?"

"Nah."

"The consumer protection crowd?"

"They're not interested."

It's a good time to be a marketer in a broadband or mobile company these days. You can make a fake ad, claiming fake data limits, and do it with regulatory impunity.

Last week, Eir launched its big summer product - 'No Limits Data' for mobile. The service has a hidden data limit of 80GB. The limit is nowhere to be seen or heard in Eir's ads, whose main focus is that the service has no limit.

I asked ComReg about it and it couldn't see a problem.

I asked the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) and it couldn't see a problem.

I asked the ASAI about this and although the industry issue is set for an eventual review, the particular case did not draw from them any censure.

All three bodies appear not to see a problem either with other unlimited data campaigns that have similar hidden data limits. These are across the board, from Vodafone and Sky to Three and Virgin Media. It's no big deal, they say.

Ordinary customers are suffering. A number of them have contacted this newspaper in the past two weeks, when this column raised the issue of how the word unlimited is being abused.

Some have ended up paying up to €100 per month in penalties because they exceeded the hidden caps on unlimited broadband.

Others have had their service 'throttled' so that they can't watch the likes of Netflix or YouTube.

This could be a family depending on the service in a terrible broadband area. Or a home worker. But no one will stand up for them.

The three would-be regulators don't want to know. Queries from this newspaper have been met with reticence, deflection and a 'please-don't-bring-it-up' tone.

This is partly because no one wants to discuss the telecoms industry's dirty little secret when it comes to fooling customers about unlimited usage.

This is the rule you may not be aware of: as long as an operator can indicate that less than 1pc of its customer base will be adversely affected, it is allowed to put in a limit on an unlimited broadband or mobile product.

It is allowed to say that up is down. That black is white. That night is day. It just has to show that only 1pc of its customers will be adversely affected by that claim.

It's a bizarre, dystopian scenario. In an era where truth is something that can be claimed just by repeating a falsehood enough times, this fits right in.

("How many fingers is that, Winston? You said four, but I think you'll find it's five.")

Commenting on the issue of the so-called unlimited mobile data not really being unlimited, Eir's director of marketing last week said that it was "effectively uncapped".

Other telecoms executives I spoke with during the week had a similar approach.

Their defence of the hidden limits to unlimited or no-limits data services included: 'But we have to manage the network'; 'But it hardly affects any customers'; 'But we're unlikely to take any action.'

It's as if the main point doesn't count - that a limited product is being missold as unlimited.

One executive came back with the most brutally pragmatic justification I've yet heard. If there's really a problem, why is ComReg not doing anything about it?

On one level, it's hard to fault this logic. Telecoms operators, like any business, will do what's permitted in a regulatory context. This is permitted in a regulatory context. So why shouldn't they shout that their services are unlimited, even if they're not?

If Vodafone, Sky, Virgin and Three are allowed to get away with it, why can't Eir?

Wouldn't it be a mug to take the high road when the others all play the system that's there to be finessed?

Sources within the ASAI told me that they know there's a problem. One told me that Eir's no-limits ads, with no reference at all on them to a 'fair-use' policy, probably wouldn't survive a complaint along those lines.

But why should Eir care if someone complains to the ASAI? There's no real penalty. The ASAI is funded exclusively by big Irish advertisers like Eir, Vodafone, Sky and Three (as well as other major brands in other sectors). A rap on the knuckles months down the line is the punishment.

Eir knows these rules well. But it's worth far more to flout them and get a possible short-term branding bounce. And it's not like ComReg or the CCPC are interested.

In Eir's case, when the actual 80GB cap on the No Limits Data service is reached, the firm says it will be "slowed down". It won't say by how much. But it's likely you wouldn't get to 100GB. So there is a hard limit somewhere - the company just won't admit it.

That limit (usually called fair use) is buried in the terms and conditions, often two or three levels down.

It usually takes me several minutes of intense burrowing to find it, even though I'm experienced in where to look.

Ironically, from a branding perspective, Eir may not be getting the best bang for its buck. With an 80GB monthly mobile data limit, Eir should be basking in glory. It's the first mobile service to dethrone Three Ireland (whose 'all-you-can-eat' mobile service has a hitherto unrivalled 60GB limit).

But because of the blanket unlimited claim, it's lumped in with all the other misleading ads that people are starting to distrust. No one will know that it actually has the best data offering in the market.

Eventually, someone will stand up and do something about this. But this trio of Irish regulators aren't interested.

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