Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

Parliament has weighed in on the Vodacom billing debacle, calling for the issue of disappearing data to be investigated by an independent body.

The mobile operator drew the ire of some of its subscribers earlier this week whose data and airtime disappeared as a result of a technical glitch.

The company has since apologised and begun reimbursing customers who were affected by the problem, but Parliament has called for a further probe into the matter.

The billing crisis came amid growing calls around the country for data prices, which remain stubbornly high, to be slashed.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on telecommunications and postal services said on Thursday that it strongly condemned the Vodacom incident.

Although the company had apologised to customers and committed not only to refund them, but also to give them an extra 500MB bundle valid for three days, the committee said the matter must be investigated by an independent body.

Vodacom is not the only cellphone operator to have incurred the wrath of customers over "disappearing airtime". MTN promised earlier this month to change the way it accounted for data use, after a MyBroadband experiment showed that on MTN, data continued to be "used" even when the mobile data option was switched off, such as when using a WiFi connection instead. This did not happen on other networks in the MyBroadband experiment.

Dikeledi Tsotetsi, the acting chairperson of the parliamentary committee, said on Thursday: "SA ranks fourth out of 17 African countries with high costs of data, and to have millions of people robbed of their airtime and data in this manner is a serious concern."

She said having received inputs from individuals and organisations during the cost-to-communicate public hearings held in Parliament last year, the committee had tasked the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) to investigate high data costs further.

In May Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel announced that SA’s high data costs would be investigated by the Competition Commission.

Last week, the commission published the terms of reference of the inquiry and called for submissions.

The inquiry will look into the market structure, the general adequacy and impact of the current regulatory regime, and costs faced and profits earned by fixed and mobile network operators.

Icasa is also reviewing the broadband market and has said the reduction in the cost of data would depend on the outcome of the review.

Tsotetsi said while the committee was awaiting reports of the ongoing investigations by Icasa and the Competition Commission, the mobile network operators had a responsibility to conduct business in a manner that was just and lawful.

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