EU watchdog attacks mobile operators

23 Jan 2003

A Europe-wide survey shows consumers are facing too many problems when buying or using their mobile phones.

Mobile phone users throughout the EU suffer poor quality services, are subjected to lengthy delays in dealing with complaints, are being overcharged and often have to endure dubious selling practices. There are also concerns about the potential health risks of electromagnetic radiation, according to the European Commission’s consumer watchdog.

The study, conducted by the European Consumers’ Organisation (ECO), shows it is virtually impossible in some countries for consumers to make price comparisons.

“Consumers are demanding high-quality services, much clearer information on prices and above all, more competition. These issues must be addressed before third-generation mobile telephony can be introduced with some chance of success,” ECO’s director, Jim Murray says. He also warned the next stage of mobile phone use would need up to 16 times as many masts as at present to ensure proper coverage.

At present, there are over 3,000 mobile masts in Ireland. In Dublin alone there are 1,102 masts.

There is growing concern that mobile phone operators may be operating a price cartel in contravention of EU law. The survey shows price comparison between European operators is virtually impossible and ‘no single pattern emerges’.

The quality of service also varies hugely and a particular problem is involuntary roaming when travelling close to a border. The mobile might connect itself to the foreign network and the consumer may be charged roaming tariffs.

The study found roaming charges generally are very expensive and sometimes surprisingly similar between different operators in the same member state, which suggests that some operators may be operating illegal cartels. Other problems include aggressive selling practices, failure to warn of radiation risks and unfair contract terms.

One of the biggest worries is the safety of mobile phone masts. “European operators rarely inform consumers of the potential risks of electromagnetic radiation on health,” the report states.

A Belgian court recently annulled a decision to install a mobile phone mast on a roof of an apartment block adding that: “this decision will only be revised when an influential member of the board of directors of a mobile phone company accepts an invitation to live with his/her children in similar conditions. That is to say, to permanently live less than 10 metres away from a mast.”

By Lisa Deeney