Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Communications Regulation (Premium Rate Services and Electronic Communications Infrastructure) Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

6:00 pm

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources back to the House.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Before the suspension of the House, I was referring to a particular difficulty regarding some premium rate calls. Psychic lines have posed considerable problems, as they prey on vulnerable people, those who need reassurance and security and are experiencing personal difficulties, and put them at great risk. Horoscope and chat-up lines and those relating to competitions also give rise to major issues.

I had a conversation with another Member a few moments ago with regard to "Play TV", a programme broadcast on one of the privately owned television channels. That programme is not particularly popular in my area but I am aware of anecdotal evidence to the effect that people are held on telephone lines for long periods, that they make repeated telephone calls and that they waste considerable sums of money. The difficulty with all of these lines is that individuals are charged rates of which they are unaware and that the calls go on for far too long. As stated earlier, there is also a problem with regard to the various texts sent to young people in respect of prizes they have won etc. These individuals are continually receiving unwanted and unsolicited texts and other messages.

While a facility is provided by means of which people can cease to receive material such as that to which I refer, this facility does not always work. In addition, unsubscribing from various services or whatever can prove to be a major difficulty. Better mechanisms should be provided in order that people might discontinue their interest in these lines or services.

Senator Healy Eames made the point to me that if a person is obliged to hold on the line for three minutes or more, the onus should be placed on the relevant company to pay for the call or to call that person back. In other words, after three minutes there should be no question of the call continuing or of the individual in question incurring further expense.

As a result of the issues that arise in respect of this matter, I am in favour of increased regulation. It is correct that we should incorporate the work done by Regtel in this area within the legislation. To be fair, Regtel did a great deal in respect of some operators, such as those offering psychic lines, etc., in the role it played with regard to self-regulation. Regtel did good work over the years and made efforts to thwart the worst excesses of the premium rate companies, such as Realm Communications. Regtel is to be congratulated on that work but it is a progressive step, especially in the context of the rationalisation we believe to be necessary, to bring its functions under the auspices of ComReg and place regulation in this area outside the industry and on an independent statutory footing. I am in favour of this in principle because it is the correct route to take. Self-regulation cannot continue and there is a need to rationalise the position. I welcome the extra powers that will be bestowed upon ComReg in respect of this matter.

The cost of premium rate calls is also an issue. This must be tackled in tandem with those relating to difficulties experienced by those seeking to unsubscribe from lines or services, the sending of unsolicited material to teenagers, the elderly and the vulnerable.

Last year, the provision of services on fixed lines was worth €95 million. That level of revenue is considerable and, as stated earlier, the industry has the potential to grow. It is important that we should not regulate it out of existence but it must be controlled. We do not want to export the business elsewhere but we also do not want the vulnerable to be exploited.

The introduction of a code of practice by ComReg will be important. That code of practice, which will be drawn up following a process of consultation, will have to be strict, must restore confidence among consumers and interest groups and will have to be precise to eliminate the difficulties to which I refer. The need for a code of practice is underlined by the fact that Regtel received 6,000 complaints last year. This compares with a figure of 1,700 for the previous year. Anyone who suggests there is no need for regulation or a code of practice is obviously extremely naive.

I already referred to the increase in the number of texts and other premium rate products relating to the services of psychics, music products, etc. These services are not always properly advertised. Last year, 22,000 people contacted Regtel and informed it of the difficulties they experienced in the context of unsubscribing from services, etc.

Reference was made, both in the Lower House and at the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, to cyber bullying. While I accept this matter is not germane to the debate on the Bill, I must state that everything possible must be done to eliminate bullying by text message or by telephone. Unfortunately and tragically, this is a modern phenomenon. I had the privilege to serve on the board of management of a community school for five or six years. As a result of overseeing disciplinary procedures at the school, one came across tragic instances of bullying by means of telephone or text message. It is important this matter is dealt with.

The system of fines that will be put in place will be important. I agree it is appropriate that a fine of €250,000 should apply at corporate level.

I understand this industry could give rise to earnings within the country of approximately €500 million per year. That is an amount at which one would not scoff. However, we must ensure we get our priorities right in respect of policing and control.

Fine Gael will consider the legislation prior to Committee Stage to see whether it might be possible to offer suggestions or amendments which might improve it. However, we will not oppose it on Second Stage because we agree with it in principle and with its objectives. Anything that stops teenagers being gulled into engaging in excessive expenditure is welcome. I was informed by a colleague that they had topped up their child's phone with €25 but that this had evaporated in no time as a result of premium rate charges. Such behaviour is unacceptable and we must police and put a stop to it.

8:00 pm

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. The Minister explained the legislation both adequately and at great length.

Section 22 relates to instances where operators cease business, which was a major difficulty in the past but which will now be catered for. I worked in this area when premium calls were first introduced and I am aware that with regard to disputed accounts, 80% of the problems that arose related to such calls. Disputes might arise where a babysitter might have called a premium line without the permission of the owner of the house where they were babysitting. When we consulted the printout, it was nearly always the case that a large telephone bill related to a premium call. It is possible for people to prevent the making of outgoing calls to premium lines on their telephones and this should be made clear to them.

Senator O'Reilly referred to certain game shows on television and mentioned TV3 in particular. I recall listening to an edition of Joe Duffy's "Liveline" programme on which someone admitted to spending €500 on calls to one of these shows in a couple of weeks. I do not know why but at 2 o'clock one morning, I decided to spend some time watching the programme on TV3 to which Senator O'Reilly referred. I will try to provide Members with some idea of what happens on these shows. They give out the name of a well known fishing village in Wexford and leave three letters blank in the middle. Anybody could work it out by looking up a map or an index - it would be no problem. I rang the number myself four times to see what would happen. I got the message that I did not get through to the studio that time, encouraging me to try again and wishing me better luck the next time. This kept going on and on. People do not get through. I watched it for a full hour and nobody got through during that hour. I believe that is extortion and should be tackled. The advertising is slick and people do not realise it until they start and they can get addicted to it very easily because it seems so simple. They believe they will win £500 in a few minutes if they keep ringing. It then keeps going up and nobody gets through. That is nothing short of extortion.

The other problem is with people leaving telephones unattended in their houses. When I worked in Telecom Éireann the reason for the majority of disputed accounts related to premium rate calls made by babysitters and so on. People did not realise the exorbitant cost involved when they made these calls. The cost of €1.50 per minute, or whatever, appears in very small print at the bottom of the screen. People do not realise the true cost until they get the bill. I hope we can rectify that matter.

The other provisions of the Bill are to be welcomed and I have no problem with it. I thank the Minister.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister. The Bill is welcome. I am confident that when enacted, it will provide an effective and robust regulatory regime that will ensure the protection of users of premium rate services and restore confidence in the regulation of the sector. Coming from a business background I have a slight problem with the caveat emptor need. We cannot protect everybody from everything and there is a danger that we tend to do that in various ways. I know of some of the challenges facing the Minister and on that basis I support what he is doing. It is not just young people; other susceptible people have been abused in this regard. I know of one competition in which there were four or five very big prizes worth large sums of money. All the other small prizes, which included a week's holiday in Florida, were guaranteed so winners were guaranteed one of those prizes. It also guaranteed that calls would be answered within ten minutes. However, calls took varying lengths of time. While everybody got a prize, what use is one week's holiday in Florida if it is just the use of a bed in a hotel in Florida and the person must pay to fly there? Clearly people lost a considerable amount of money on it. I know the young man who established that legitimately and made a large sum of money from it. It was quite legitimate. I do not know how the Minister will solve this issue and I do not know the Bill in sufficient detail, but I am sure the regulator will have some ability to do so.

I welcome any Bill which brings in more safeguards to protect the customer. The issue of using mobile phones for marketing and advertising is perhaps more complex than we thought and certainly than I thought. In the Middle East for example, unsolicited text messages are very common and do not prompt many complaints. People in the Middle East are apparently quite used to them and do not have any problem with them. However, Europeans are less enamoured with such intrusion and it is interesting to note that in some parts of Scandinavia it is usual to send someone a text message asking permission to call that person. I had not realised that.

Without repeating what others have said about the Bill, I would like to get the Minister's view on some of issues that are relevant and will become increasingly relevant for mobile phone advertising in the future owing to rapidly developing technology. Mobile phones, some which have satellite-positioning technology, could be used in the future to alert people through text messages or visual advertisements to a certain shop or restaurant as they are walking or driving past. People using the Internet to search for a generic term could be targeted on their mobile phones. For example someone keying "Indian food" into Google, could then receive advertisements from nearby Indian restaurants. Of course, it is an innovative way of advertising, but I am still unsure of such direct tactics. I would be interested to get the Minister's view. This comes back to the point about caveat emptor because that seems like a very clever form of advertising. Clearly if it is intrusive, we must be able to ensure that people can disconnect. I read in the Bill that there are ways to do so but I am not sure I understand them. I am not sure the Bill provides for this progression of technology and perhaps we should try to anticipate some of the changes in this field given that the technology changes so much.

Why do schools close in the snow? On a related note, I think mobile phone technology has great relevance regarding the recent closing of schools across the country due to snowfall. I am sure the Minister is too young to remember it, but approximately 30 years ago when there was a very heavy fall of snow, a particular Minister, who is no longer with us, became known as the Minister for snow because he announced we would close all schools for a week. However, that was because there was an enormous fall of snow in Dublin but there was no snow in Cork, Limerick or anywhere else.

It would appear to many of us from the older generation that schools close much more often than they used to. Advanced communications make it easier for schools to close; they can send a text message and inform students they will be closed. Even more to the point they can inform students that they will be open, which is probably more important rather than having to close schools in a large area. This of course could not happen in the past. Closing a school back then would have caused considerable chaos and confusion with students and teachers turning up to the school, then having to find their way home again. The point is that perhaps if schools had the technology we have now, they could have stayed open and have notified people that they were open. I am not sure how we can do it effectively, but I think it is worth looking at how technology, including mobile phones, is used responsibly especially when it comes to school closures.

The effort the Minister is making is well worthwhile. I assume the regulator will be able to handle the details of these matters. Technology is changing all the time and is moving very fast. I hope the Bill takes into account the changes that will take place in technology in the years ahead. I congratulate the Minister on introducing the Bill and urge him to ensure we enact it as soon as possible.

Photo of Déirdre de BúrcaDéirdre de Búrca (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister and I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate on the timely Communications Regulation (Premium Rate Services and Electronic Communications Infrastructure) Bill 2009. Senator Quinn mentioned some of the changes in the field. It is important for legislation to keep pace with the changes that are happening. The premium rate industry is one of growing importance. In the UK it is estimated to be worth in the region of £1 billion per annum. It incorporates a diverse and growing number of services. I came across a simple definition of premium rate services as "content data and value-added services where payment is subsequently charged to an individual's or household's telephone account". The growing range of services includes ones of which we are aware: fixed-line telecoms services, live chat lines, information services such as weather forecasting, traffic news, stock exchange reports and sports results. In addition television vote lines are becoming more popular. There are mobile services such as ringtones, media content and payment through reverse-billed SMS.

The Bill is timely because there is an increasing convergence between telecoms and broadcasting resulting in significant innovation in these premium rate services. There are subscription media services on mobile phones, interactive gaming on television and even entire television channels based on premium rate calling. There are also significant business applications for premium rate services. In Ireland we are all familiar with unique prefixes relating to the premium rate services: 1530, 1540, 1550, 1559, 1560, 1570 and 1580. The 1559 prefix is dedicated solely to adult services and can only be accessed with a PIN issued by a network operator. Calls to premium rate services cost more than ordinary telephone calls and each prefix has a specific call cost. The role of regulation is important. Others have referred to this. One of its important purposes is to prevent consumer harm, in particular to ensure clear and accurate pricing information is provided along with honest advertising and service content. This Bill will accomplish this by ensuring the new regulatory system includes those strong consumer provisions.

In earlier days it was much more common for premium numbers to be used fraudulently. Computer criminals have used premium rate numbers to defraud unsuspecting Internet users. As we know, many more children and young people are using the Internet, which makes them vulnerable to this type of fraud. One particular scheme involved encouraging users to download a programme known as a "dialler" which surreptitiously dialled a premium rate number, accumulating charges on the user's phone bill without his or her knowledge. Another premium rate scam involved television programming that encouraged young children to dial a number, relying on the assumption that they would be unaware of the charges to be incurred.

In Ireland, premium rate telephone services have been regulated by Regtel, an independent non-profit company formed in 1995. It operates through a strict code of practice with which all service providers in Ireland must comply. Regtel has been required to assure consumer protection when using national or international premium rate services and has put in place procedures to deal with consumer complaints that arise from the use of these services.

The Bill provides for the transfer of the function of the regulation of premium rate services from Regtel to the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. It also provides for certain other amendments to the overall communications framework. The transfer of the regulatory function to ComReg will ensure an effective regime that addresses the present market environment is established and this is in accordance with Government policy on agency rationalisation. The legislation enables ComReg to license the premium rate services by specifying the classes or types of premium rate services that require to be licensed, the terms and conditions that may be attached, and the information that premium rate service providers must provide to ComReg upon request. Significantly, it also deals with the issue of offences and penalties. The Bill provides the necessary investigative powers to ComReg to ensure the conditions of a licence are being complied with. ComReg will be empowered to revoke, amend or suspend a PRS licence with immediate effect, if necessary, where it finds that the holder has failed to comply with a licence condition. It also provides for summary and indictable offences relating to the provision of unlicensed premium rate services and summary offences for overcharging for services or charging for services not supplied. A service provider aggrieved by a decision of ComReg to refuse to grant or revoke, amend or suspend a PRS licence will have the right of appeal to the Circuit Court.

Significantly, too, the Bill provides that ComReg will, in consultation with the industry and other interested parties, prepare and publish a code of practice to be followed by premium rate service providers. Compliance with the code of practice will be a condition of the licence.

I have mentioned that the legislation makes some other changes to the communications infrastructure. Having been a member of a local authority, I particularly appreciate the fact that this Bill amends Part 5 of the principal Act of 2002 to facilitate the National Roads Authority in making ducting infrastructure on national roads and motorways available for fibre roll-out. This will facilitate the roll-out of fibre throughout the country to provide broadband connectivity, one of the priorities the Minister has emphasised his Department will pursue. This legislation will facilitate us in developing the communications infrastructure which will help achieve that objective. Under the principal Act, local authorities were the sole consent-giving authority for local, regional and national roads as well as motorways. This amendment in the legislation before the House designates the National Roads Authority as an authority for national roads, which includes motorways. This will enable the National Roads Authority to make available to network operators access to the ducting on national roads and motorways to facilitate the roll-out of high-speed fibre networks in the regions.

For all these reasons I commend the legislation and I commend the Minister on its introduction. I happily support the Bill.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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I welcome the support of Senators for Second Stage of this Bill.

I shall deal with a couple of points. Senator O'Reilly said something that bears repeating about the good work the existing agency, Regtel, has been doing. We acknowledge this, while recognising the lack of statutory powers which hindered Regtel from doing the work necessary, especially in an evolving area, thus requiring us to make the changes that have to be made. However, it is important to recognise the work that has been done by the existing agency while acknowledging the limitations in its statutory remit which have required us to change the circumstances.

I also thank Senator Brady for his reporting of his experiences in front of his television set at 2 o'clock in the morning, giving us good examples of some of the scams that can take place. Senator Quinn is right about caveat emptor, but there are occasions when, say, at 2 o'clock in the morning, it is difficult to be absolutely awake and razor sharp and people can be taken in by inappropriate marketing practices. It is appropriate that we are now legislating to change such practices.

Given Senator Quinn's record of attention to customer service, I take on board with extra attention what he has said. The question he asks about how mobile services are developing is interesting. In the first example he mentioned the prospect of a person walking down a street and, through Bluetooth technology in all likelihood, getting access to information about the restaurants or shops in the street. Somebody told me the other day that an application available from iTunes does precisely that. It can tell one not just that there is a restaurant in the neighbourhood but that there is a table free and one might get a 10% discount if one says one has used the mobile advertising network to access information and using words to the effect that the steak is particularly good tonight or whatever. That level of detail is now available on mobile phones. They are becoming the access network to------

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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That is what the customer looks for.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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The Senator is right. The question then is whether the customer is not looking for it, because unwarranted advertising is a very serious issue. It is slightly different from the premium rates services issue. In that sense it is a contract that is entered into, either wittingly or unwittingly, whereas the issue of unwarranted communications is primarily a matter for the Data Protection Commission. We need to have co-ordination in that regard to ensure this is not unwarranted. It may be the most useful service in terms of the application of a phone, but if one is not looking for such a service, it could be a frightful nuisance. The second example given by the Senator in terms of target advertising is a matter primarily for a data protection officer, while recognising the reality that mobile phones increasingly are becoming our computers and main access point to the Internet. The volume of data we draw down in terms of video streaming, etc. will all happen on mobile phones.

For that very reason there have to be consumer protections in place to allow people the confidence to know their mobile phone dealings are legitimate and not scams. Therefore, strong regulation is good for the mobile phone industry. Hammering the bad operators is good for the development of this technology, which is something we should encourage. I believe it is positive, very efficient and can be socially beneficial. We have benefited from texting, for example. I do not know about the Senators, but when I get a text, I tend to like it. I like the form of communication and the type of social networking it provides. Increasingly, I use the Internet on my phone and it works. I like accessing the weather forecast on my mobile and watching the rain patterns which one can now get by satellite right to the phone. In our country that is beneficial, so we need to progress and disperse this technology, while increasingly using it for mainstream commercial and social communication. For those reasons we want to ensure it is run to a high commercial standard. I agree with Senator Quinn about the ongoing evolution, subject to the appropriate data protection restrictions of this technology, so we know that everyone in the school can be texted. In that way, a parent or guardian will not be fumbling around in their child's schoolbag and giving out to them the next morning because they forgot a school note. It is much easier to do it by text, as long as people are open to such communications.

I thank Senator de Búrca for going over the key details of the Bill, including support for the telecommunications infrastructure being provided by the National Roads Authority. When I visit local authorities and speak to county managers, the crucial thing they ask about is fibre. They want infrastructure, including roads, transport and water, but increasingly they realise that a lack of fibre will restrict economic development. We need to install further fibre in my area of south Dún Laoghaire and run it from there to County Wicklow where I am sure Senator de Búrca will be pleased to receive it.

I thank Senators who contributed on Second Stage. I look forward to taking the Bill through its remaining stages and enacting it for the betterment of our citizens.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Independent)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Martin BradyMartin Brady (Fianna Fail)
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Next Tuesday.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 26 January 2010.

Photo of Fiona O'MalleyFiona O'Malley (Independent)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.