Fixed telephony facing Stone Age snags

Thousands of telecommunications-related complaints are being filed each year by consumers, both with the General Secretariat for Consumers (GSC) and consumer organizations. In some cases, such complaints may be as many as for products and banking services, which occupy top places in the list. According to EU Commissioner for Consumer Protection Meglena Kuneva, who recently visited Greece, it is not the charges that make subscribers unhappy but the quality of services offered by telephony providers. Delays in service provision and incomplete information provided to consumers are at the top of the complaints lists. In 2007 alone, the GSC’s complaints phone line 1520 received more than 3,000 calls, accounting for 5.1 percent of the overall number of complaints filed for goods and services. The Development Ministry’s agency said that the majority of such complaints related to contract effect dates, failure to provide the agreed services, reneging on the contract, inadequate network coverage and overly high and questionable charges. Development Ministry officials say an increasing number of consumer complaints have been made on telecommunications issues in recent years. This is attributed primarily to a new consumer mentality according to which there is a widespread hope that things in certain areas may be improved if complaints are made. Consumer association EKPOIZO has said that in 2007 it received more than 3,200 complaints for telecoms, an area of service which now ranks in third place in terms of number of complaints, behind goods and banking services. Complaints have been made involving the following issues: delays in service provision and inadequate fulfillment of contract obligations; false information on line availability and time required for connection; lengthy waiting periods for connection, ranging from one to six months; lower-than-advertised Internet quality and speed, periodic line failures, low communication quality; billing of charges even when services are not being provided, and charges even after exiting a subscribed service; poor, if any, after-sales service, with waiting time at call centers reaching up to one hour; extremely high charges incurred by Internet users from so-called dialers, by global and even Greek-based companies. The association believes that such dysfunctions are the result of specific market shortcomings, including the way problems are dealt with by both the Hellenic Telecommunications Organization (OTE) and alternative telephony providers. In many cases, alternative phone companies deny liability for failure to provide services they have promised and agreed to, blaming OTE instead. In addition, EKPOIZO apportions part of the blame to state agencies GSC and the National Telecommunications and Post Commission (EETT), saying they are too «soft» and must take measures to effectively protect consumers. A similar picture is also drawn by the Consumer Protection Center (KEPKA), whose 2007 data showed a year-on-year increase of 84 percent in complaints for telecoms services, from 938 in 2006 to 1,728 in 2007. The center has demanded that an Obligations Charter be set up to protect consumers and their rights. Hope dies last A message by telecoms market officials that «the worst is behind us,» holds out some hope of a gradual improvement in telecoms services. Against this background EETT, as the agency where all consumer complaints end up, is also now more optimistic. «Based on our experience, we believe that the number of consumer complaints is gradually dropping, but to show this we need more concrete data, which we are likely to have next summer,» said Nikos Koulouris, vice president of EETT. He admits though that all parties involved must handle certain issues very seriously. The Commission is soon to join forces with the GSC, the Consumer Ombudsman and the Ministry of Transport and Communications, to set up a «one-stop shop» website to help consumers solve a variety of related problems. The website will include details such as the names of officials to contact to speed up the process. But will this be enough? Can heavy fines imposed by EETT on telecom providers turn things around? The answer, according to Koulouris is not a simple yes or no. He says the market, as well as telecom providers, need to further mature. «Responsibility lies both with OTE, which up until recently objected to the opening up of this market, and with alternative providers which grossly overestimated their capabilities.» On the other hand, alternative telephony providers have also made some tragic mistakes. For instance, they promised services and solutions which they knew they were unable to eventually provide. According to EETT, some alternative phone companies insist on referring customer complaints of service failures to OTE. Alternative phone companies currently provide voice and Internet connection services to some 800,000 subscribers across the country.

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