By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Prominent businessman Franklyn Wilson has objected to Cable Bahamas’ charging him ‘late payment’ fees, with the industry regulator agreeing to his demand that such charges be proportionate.
Details of the Sunshine Holdings chairman’s views were contained in yesterday’s release by the Utilities Regulation and Competition Authority (URCA) of its final consumer protection regulations, the regulator noting that his opinion was by no means an isolated one.
“Franklyn R. Wilson expressed the view that Cable Bahamas’ ‘Prior Month Adjustments’ or ‘Late Charges’ that appear on his statements are not warranted, and he encouraged URCA to take steps to ensure that Cable Bahamas practices in this regard are appropriate,” URCA’s statement of results said.
The regulator acknowledged that Cable Bahamas was the only licensee to charge customers ‘late fees’, and that this had been a common complaint at Town Meetings held to discuss its consumer protection regulations.
“URCA notes the concerns of Deborah Weech and Franklyn R. Wilson regarding Cable Bahamas’ billing practices, particularly the application of a late fee on a customer’s account for payment not received by the payment due date,” URCA added.
“URCA also notes that reconnection and late payment fees were a common concern expressed by respondents at the various town meetings. As Cable Bahamas is currently the only service provider to apply a late payment fee, URCA notes that Cable Bahamas does not apply this late fee until after 10 days from the payment due date.”
To ease the concerns of Mr Wilson and others, the regulator said: “While URCA has not proposed to regulate the timeframes associated with late payment fees in the regulations, URCA has stipulated in.... the regulations that such fees must be reasonable, proportionate and must not represent or cause an inordinate burden to customers.”
Another concerned consumer who responded to the URCA consultation was Mr Wilson’s daughter, Sharlyn Smith, although the regulator said its regulations had addressed her concerns over the accuracy and timeliness of utility providers’ bills.
“Sharlyn Smith shared a recent experience she had with a BTC customer service agent where she was advised by the agent that as a result of bills sometimes being uploaded late by BTC, the amount payable by the payment date will be more than the amount shown on the statement,” URCA said.
“She expressed concern that the monthly statements provided to customers are inaccurate at the dates thereof, and argued that the monthly statements should reflect the amount owed to BTC on the date thereon.”
The communications providers, though, made sure they had plenty to say themselves. And URCA acceded, somewhat, to their requests, reducing how long they had to wait to disconnect customers from 90 days to 60 days after the bill is due.
Cable Bahamas, for its part, had accused URCA of seeking to “micro manage the billing and credit management practices” of licensees.
The BISX-listed firm added that URCA’s proposed three-month cut off, after which providers would be unable to recover unbilled amounts from consumers, was “unnecessary and arbitrary”.
“Cable Bahamas stated that billing errors may occur for a variety of reasons, including possible fraudulent behaviour on a customer’s part, and it can take some time before the errors are detected,” URCA recorded.
“Cable Bahamas argued that there is no prejudice to customers if billing errors are not corrected more than three months after a billing period.”
The company also warned that URCA’s original proposals would “require extensive and costly billing system and practice changes” from which it would derive no benefit.
“Cable Bahamas believes that the minimum 90-day period from the bill due date to disconnection will inevitably lead to extra burdens on customers, and some customers will likely seek to ‘game’ the new deadlines,” URCA said.
“Therefore, Cable Bahamas would have no choice but to implement measures to protect itself by increasing security deposits, for example.
“Cable Bahamas also commented that the extended disconnection deadline could lead to higher service rates to offset greater losses attributable to unrecoverable unpaid accounts.”
URCA added: “Cable Bahamas further commented that it currently does not have the technical means in place to restrict or suspend customers’ services as provided for in the regulations.
“It added that it would incur significant upfront and ongoing network and system costs to implement these measures. Cable Bahamas expressed that it currently faces challenges with non-payment of bills, and that this challenge will be exacerbated by extending the time limit before services can be disconnected for non-payment.”
URCA agreed on the 90-day ‘cut off’ issue, reducing this timeframe to 60 days and bringing it into line with Cable Bahamas’ current practice.
“Cable Bahamas expressed the view that the key factor for dictating possible disconnection timing in the case of unpaid bills should be the exhaustion of the customer’s security deposit,” URCA added.
“Cable Bahamas has also expressed the view that a significant loophole exists in the regulations in that disputed balances would free a customer from the responsibility of paying an outstanding balance, and from being disconnected by the service provider.
“Cable Bahamas expressed the view that legitimate billing disputes can be investigated and resolved relatively quickly by service providers on a case-by-case basis.
“However, Cable Bahamas believes that the customer should be required to pay all outstanding non-disputed balances on or before the payment due date. Cable Bahamas commented that this provision would open the door to abuse of the bill payment process, as customers may rely on frivolous billing disputes to avoid or delay outstanding balance payments or the possibility of service disconnection.”
This, though, was not a view URCA shared.