$6 million fine 'will push SingTel to improve'

Consumers applauded the record $6 million fine imposed on SingTel for an Internet outage last year, saying it will push the telco to improve. But some consumers still felt that more could be done to minimise the pain of such large-scale service disruptions.

Events project consultant Roy Nahar, 31, whose fibre broadband links were cut off for three days, said the hefty fine will send a strong message that safety procedures must be followed seriously. "I'm sure SingTel will take more precautionary measures," he said.

Fibre broadband users were affected as the fire damaged the cables of fibre broadband network builder OpenNet, which were housed in the same premises.

Consumers Association of Singapore (Case) executive director Seah Seng Choon agreed, saying: "The amount is sizable enough for SingTel to sit up and take appropriate action to prevent a repeat."

The hour-long fire at the telco's Bukit Panjang exchange on Oct 9 took down Internet connections in northern and western Singapore, affecting 270,000 subscribers, including businesses, for up to eight days. The fire was caused by the use of an unauthorised blowtorch by a SingTel worker. This sparked a slow-burning fire that went undetected due to safety lapses and human error.

But some consumers felt that telcos should set up a national hotline or compensation framework.

"Frankly, you can't avoid human error, but customer communications need to improve for such incidents," said communications consultant Priscilla Wong, 36, who could not get through to StarHub's hotline when her cable broadband was down for two days. StarHub was hit as it leases backend fibre links from SingTel.

IT manager Gordon Ng, 43, who did not have Web connections for 21 days, felt that monthly subscription fees should be waived if services are disrupted.

SingTel offered its 60,000 affected home broadband customers a free speed boost for three months. For instance, those on its 200Mbps plan were bumped up to a 300Mbps one.

"Subscription waiver is not a standard compensation," said Mr Ng, who managed to get a three- month subscription waiver after more than 20 phone calls.

Case's Mr Seah agreed. "At the very least, consumers should expect waiver of charges during the period of disruption," he said.

A SingTel spokesman said the firm's priority since the incident has been to prevent a repeat.

Stiffer fines for telcos that breach regulations were passed in Parliament in November 2011. The maximum fine is now 10 per cent of the annual turnover for licensable services, or $1 million - whichever is higher. Previously, it was capped at $1 million.

The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) has exercised its expanded powers. M1 was fined $1.5 million for a mobile outage in January last year, lasting for up to 71 hours and affecting some 250,000 users. Although SingTel's fine eclipsed the M1 fine, market observers noted that the latter punishment seems more harsh for a less severe outage.

Responding, an IDA spokesman said: "IDA must look at the faults and merits of each case. Comparison of financial penalties imposed by IDA across different service outage cases should not be simplistically drawn."


This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.