Saturday 24 March 2018

Vodafone faces row over switch to online billing

Regulator concerned about effect on elderly customers who do not have access to internet


VODAFONE is switching some of its customers to online billing, threatening to re-open a row over the way paper bills are being phased out.

The mobile phone operator has informed its customers on the Perfect Friend tariff — most of whom are company employees — that they will be receiving their monthly bill online rather than by post.

Those who want to continue receiving paper bills will have to log on to the company’s website to opt-out. Although only a small number of Vodafone customers are affected, the move conflicts with the Communication Regulator’s (ComReg) view that customers should give their agreement before they are moved to online bills.

It follows the row last year when Vodafone’s rival, O2, attempted to switch customers to an online billing system. Consumer groups claimed that it would impact on those without internet access, particularly the poor and the elderly. The Communications Regulator intervened to warn 02 that it was in breach of its licence by changing people’s billing conditions. ComReg subsequently produced a preliminary consultation paper in which it “suggested” that phone companies secure the agreement of their customers before switching their billing system.

Vodafone Perfect Friend customers were informed about the impending switch in a leaflet according to EU regulations, a spokesperson said. The leaflet informed customers that they could revert to paper billing by logging on to the company website and changing their preference. Many utility companies want to move towards online billing to save on costs while also emphasising the environmental benefits. However, the practice of switching customers automatically is a cause of concern to consumer and lobby groups.

Michael Culloty, spokesman for the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, said this weekend: “The first thing is the consumer must have choice. The consumer must opt to have online billing rather than choose not to have it. Often people who have paper billing may not have access to the internet, or to a computer.” He added these were the people who would be charged more by opting for paper bills rather online bills.

Vodafone said 98 per cent of its landline and broadband customers were billed online, despite being offered a choice of opting back to paper bills at no extra cost. A spokeswoman said: “At Vodafone we engage with our customers in an upfront manner. Before we initiated any plans toward e-billing/online billing, we communicated clearly to impacted customers via letters, text messages and/or emails.

“We are working with and inputting into ComReg on the consultation process, which is currently under review. O2 has moved to paperless bills and 3 has no restriction on paperless billing. Vodafone is following movements in the market in that regard.” A statement from ComReg said it would seek further details and “investigate as appropriate”. While it recognised the desire of phone companies to move to e-billing, it said in most cases, “an e-bill is permitted where positive consumer consent is obtained, and that a paper bill is to be provided, as standard, where such consumer consent is not obtained”.

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