Belgian operator Proximus has confirmed a customer complaint, saying that it did indeed sometimes charge for data used with certain apps, even though subscribers had signed up for deals in which that data was supposed to be free, according to a news report. The operator added that the charges were imposed only in “exceptional” cases.
In this particular case, it turned out that the data the customer used for Instagram was deducted from his data bundle, even though Instagram was set up as a favorite app with unlimited data use under the deal. According to Proximus, the error occurred because Instagram began using a new server without notifying the operator. As a result, the automated system was no longer able to identify the data from Instagram, according to Proximus.
Proximus says the system generally works well but that errors can occur in 3 to 4 percent of cases, with the cause always being the same as in this one, that is, that providers of apps and services adjust their systems or software without always informing Proximus.
This incident, though minor in itself, sheds some interesting light on a phenomenon in modern-day mobile telecommunications. By broadening the nature of their offerings in an ongoing attempt to stay relevant in the marketplace and appealing to customers, MNOs make themselves dependent on outside entities. This opens the door to potential weaknesses or points of vulnerability for operators. While some of the relationships that operators cultivate are with true partners, in which there is valuable collaboration and sharing of assets, in other cases, the relationship is more distant and passive.
With the zero-rating of popular apps—a proven strategy for stimulating data use and retaining subscribers—the relationship between the operator and the app service provider is of the less involved type, with concomitant risks of lack of communication. The app provider may not feel any particular loyalty to the operator, nor even be completely aware that there is a deal involving free data. Failing to inform the operator when there have been changes in software or servers can easily occur and result in subscribers being charged for data they believed was free.
Of course, Proximus figured out what happened and appropriately admitted the mistake. Presumably it will reverse the data charges. It would of course be a good idea to give the subscriber who complained some extra data or some other perk by way of compensation, to preserve good will.
As we said, the relevance of this incident is less the particular facts of the case than that it is a window onto a potential Achilles heel, so to speak, of passive-type arrangements that operators may make in the interest of pleasing customers. If there are flaws in communication or lack of awareness between partnering companies, the consumer will be the loser, and ultimately, the operator will, too. We should also point out that when the operator says these problems occur in 3 to 4 percent of cases, that is a rather large number, considering how many customers are involved.