Vodafone data charges - an open letter to Jakub Hrabovsky, Head of Web Relations
For previous information concerning Vodafone's data charges, see the timeline of events here
Thanks for your most recent email. As I said previously, I do appreciate you taking the time to reply - plenty of major companies wouldn't.
I'm going to make this a public reply, just so everyone is absolutely sure why we are continuing to pursue this. In return, I will happily publish any response, unedited.
First, let me apologise if you feel I have edited your previous responses before publishing; I would point out the editing was of whole sentences, and that I only removed the constant repetition concerning Vodafone's stance on this matter - that Vodafone believes only a minority of customers exceed their 500MB FUP allowance, and that Vodafone has always reserved the right to charge for excessive use. These points are well documented.
You state Bitterwallet has been unfair to Vodafone and our readers by claiming the company has been inconsistent in its message concerning data charges. I would absolutely deny this. I want to walk you through the communications from both Vodafone and yourself, and prove how inconsistent and ambiguous the information has been:
"We are planning to introduce Out Of Bundle charging for Pay Monthly customers from 1st June 2010... whilst you've all previously been used to there not being any Out Of Bundle charging, the current information available online is clear in explaining that we could introduce such charging at any time."
The current contracts reserves Vodafone the right to charge for what they consider excessive use, not introduce Out of Bundle charges. The two are certainly not the same. "Out of Bundle" means the new charges fall outside the remit of the core agreement, whereas a FUP means such charges are part of it. A customer can't exceed a FUP within the terms of their contract one month, and then exceed it the next but not be within the terms of the same contract. That's a nonsense.
Both lead to the same outcome - that customers can be charged for exceeding their 500MB FUP. The difference is that one requires customers be given notice of the charges and, in particular cases, the right to cancel without fee. The other does not.
A new statement in the forums (which has now been deleted) read:
Definition of excessive use?
Excessive use is listed in the current Terms and Conditions and applies for now, but when Out Of Bundle charging is introduced, the terms will be amended and so this won’t apply.
Unfortunately, the Terms and Conditions don't define 'excessive use' at all. It was only defined by Vodafone a week later [after this particular statement] as being all usage over 500MB, contradicting all past definitions by Vodafone staff which said some usage over 500MB wasn't considered excessive. There's an area of ambiguity here.
Also, Vodafone clearly states here that terms will be amended. Under the terms of Vodaone's contract and Ofcom's General Conditions, Vodafone would have to give 30 days notice (although in Ofcom's case, only if the changes were likely to be detrimental).
Will I be allowed to cancel my account under Clause 7?
We’ ll be giving you 14 days’ notice before introducing Out Of Bundle charging which complies with clause 7a.
Since Vodafone have already stated they are introducing Out of Bundle charges on 1 June, customers might assume this means receiving notice 14 days before 1 June. There's an area of ambiguity here.
In June we'll be introducing a free text service to tell our contract customers when they're approaching the upper limit of their data bundle. As the vast majority of our mobile internet subscribers (more than 97 percent) never reach the limit they will not be receiving the text alerts at all.
In this statement, all mention of the data charges being new has been dropped. Instead the statement focuses on the text alerts, which were barely mentioned in the 6 May statement. So are the charges new, are they existing charges, or are they increases to existing charges? There's an area of ambiguity here.
The 97% figures is mentioned. I bring this up again, because using it in the context of 500MB is misleading - your staff and yourself have done this several times as I've highlighted in past emails, but you have now told us twice the figure is for all mobile internet data bundles; these are your previous comments to us:
BW: when quoting the 97% figure, are you referring to data allowances of 500MB only, or all data allowances of all sizes that are available?
JH: I think I’m repeating myself here when I say that it’s for all our mobile internet bundle subscribers. So yes, all data allowances.
The 97 percent figure pertains to all mobile internet data bundles which are 500 Gb [sic] for all mobile internet enabled handsets in our portfolio with the exception of Nexus One and iPhone which are at 1GB.
Because this figure also includes 1GB bundles, it cannot be used to refer to the usage of 500MB allowances, because customers with higher data limits will be less likely to reach them, thereby inflating that percentage. It's impossible to draw any conclusion at to how many 500MB customers exceed their monthly allowance.
Without reference to specific handsets, what is the percentage of customers with a smartphone and a 500MB allowance that exceed their monthly allowance? Customers have asked, as have we, and there's been no answer. You keep repeating that it's a minority, so it seems the figures are available.
If after receiving several such alerts, over a period of few months, customers continue to use excessive amounts of data they will be contacted by Vodafone and advised to upgrade to another data plan to avoid incurring unnecessary additional charges.
How many alerts? Over how many months? This was simply more ambiguity, at a time when customers were asking for clarity.
Note: 500MB means you can read and reply to thousands of emails, download 24 Google maps and read 8,000 BBC News stories. Today, a tiny fraction of our customers use their full allowance.
You've already agreed to take a look at this, but I would strenuously make the point that most websites are not optimised for mobile browsers. The BBC News website certainly isn't; I've just opened the top story on my iPhone and it was 87K. If you can make 8,000 new stories of that size fit into 500MB, you've just discovered a new branch of mathematics. Browsing the web on a mobile device invariably means browsing full-size web pages, not WAP sites. The example as it stands is ambiguous at best, and at worst, misleading.
Vodafone initially told customers it is introducing new Out of Bundle charges. Then this statement says there are no changes to charges (Question 17), yet the same statement also states there is no previously published rate for these charges (Question 15)? Surely you can appreciate why this is confusing and ambiguous? It doesn't make sense.
Also, this statement does not mention giving customers the right to cancel without penalty, as previous statements did. Do they still have the right or not?
Finally, there's a matter of clarification on the information you have provided us on different dates:
BW: Will there be a change to standard terms from 1 June?
JH: Yes, there will be minor changes; in particular in the price plan documentation outlining the process of notifying customers before they incur out of bundle charges
BW: Are you still introducing new charges on 1 June? Are you still modifying the contracts of existing customers, as you confirmed to us that you were?
JH: We’ve never confirmed that we’d be modifying contracts of our existing customers. We will not be sending a blanket notification as we do not believe that we have made a change to our terms.
The statements made by your staff in the forums also confirm there will be a modification of the terms. I don't know if you're just making me work to get an answer here, but are there to be changes or not? Will there be changes to the terms of contracts for new customers only, or all customers? Or will there be no changes?
To summarise, these are our concerns with the statements made by Vodafone to date:
- Vodafone is taking a clause included in the core agreement - the ability to exceed the 500MB allowance and possibly be charged - and using it to introduce Out of Bundle charges. The two are being confused by Vodafone yet are not the same; one affords rights to the consumer, the other does not.
- communications from Vodafone have been and remain to be ambiguous and confusing
- statements from Vodafone concerning data usage have been and continue to be ambiguous and misleading
- a general point: the use of mobile data and applications is rising rapidly, and this includes applications that stream media or are otherwise data-intensive. Vodafone does not block these applications, many of which users must pay for, nor does Vodafone warn customers that using them may severely restrict their data usage in the future. Yet from a customer's point of view, streaming music on a radio app or Spotify for a couple of hours a day or watching videos isn't 'excessive' - it's considered normal because from their point of view, Vodafone has allowed them to do so.
- whatever the number of customers with a 500 MB FUP that exceed their monthly allowance, it is only going to increase over the next two years. You keep quoting the (incorrect) statistic for usages at the moment, but you are introducing charges which will have ramifications well beyond the present. It simply doesn't matter when Vodafone repeatedly claim a minority of customers are affected in the here and now; every single projection available of mobile data consumption shows it going through the roof in the next two years. That is why we're not prepared to let this drop until Vodafone can be fair and honest with its customers over this matter.
Finally, in your most recent email to Bitterwallet, you signed off with:
Last but not least, let the customer judge the outcome of the situation and don’t presume all customers are upset.
I'm not presuming all customers are upset and neither should you, because Vodafone hasn't told the majority of them about the charges. Vodafone seemingly isn't going to tell anyone outside their forum about new charges that specifically relate to a clause within their core agreement. Vodafone has to inform all customers of the situation in a fair and honest way, not in a year's time when they discover new applications for their mobile, only to find that using them will mean having to pay more.
These changes will affect all customers for the remainder of their contract - the reason Vodafone hasn't informed them, I suspect, is because you appreciate what the likely reaction will be.