Budget 2014: More protection for pay-TV customers

Consumers may soon be able to cancel their pay-TV subscriptions without paying a penalty if the service provider changes programming or pricing.

The new rules proposed by the Media Development Authority (MDA) aim to address the problem of one-sided contracts that leave the consumer at a disadvantage.

They will cover instances where pay-TV operators impose higher fees or remove channels or important programmes while contracts are still in force. These are situations the MDA may deem "detrimental" to subscribers.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said in Parliament on Monday that there are "concerns" over unfair practices. Pay-TV providers changing the terms of contracts that have already been activated has long been the bane of consumers, an area highlighted by Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC).

Customers have few options, as Dr Yaacob noted: "When consumers wish to exit their contracts in such situations, they currently have to pay exit penalties."

Many irate customers have written to The Straits Times Forum Page in the past three years to complain about being forced to pay more for fewer or unwanted programmes, among other gripes.

Reader Simon Goh complained in a letter published on November 10, 2012, that SingTel removed Champions League football from the Ultimate Sports Package he bought in 2011 and then asked him to pay more to watch the games.

Two other rules to tackle complaints are also being considered as part of the MDA's Media Code review, Parliament heard. One is to prohibit telcos from forcing subscribers to upgrade non-pay-TV services when they want to alter only their pay-TV package.

"Occasionally, subscribers are required to upgrade their non-pay-TV services, for example, broadband services, when they change their pay-TV services. These upgrades are typically not necessary to support the changes in the pay-TV services," Dr Yaacob said.

Real estate agent Wong Peng Khuen, 61, said he was forced by SingTel in 2012 to pay more to upgrade his fixed broadband plan to qualify for its Champions League pay-TV package.

Mr Wong, who complained in a letter to the ST Forum Page on January 22 last year, told The Straits Times on Monday that he applauded the move, saying the rule was "long overdue". "Pay-TV operators should not have been allowed to do this; broadband and pay-TV are two different things."

Operators will also be required to highlight important contractual terms such as the expiry of promotional prices or early termination charges before customers sign up.

The MDA will consult the public on these proposals next month.

A SingTel spokesman said on Monday that it tries to minimise customer inconvenience but its contracts with content providers are not always renewed. "(When) our content contracts... are not extended, we always try to find a replacement that is equally appealing."

StarHub said that when it raised the price of its basic pay-TV package to $33.17 from $27.82, customers still in a contract were not affected.

Since 2012, all pay-TV contracts have been capped at two years. Early cancellation charges have also been pro-rated, so the closer a customer is to the end of his contract, the lower the cancellation fee due. Pay-TV contracts were previously not regulated.


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