File photo: Reuters

Pretoria - Imagine a cellphone company executive at a supermarket check-out. The cashier passes her groceries through the electronic scanner, and the total comes to R552. She pays, is then handed a till slip – a very short till-slip.

It has total amounts for four categories of purchases: fresh produce, household cleaners, dairy and processed food.

Confused, she asks the cashier: “Why aren’t all the items I’ve bought listed on this slip? I need to see exactly what I’ve bought, and what each item has cost me!”

“Sorry,” replies the cashier. “You should have asked for an itemised bill – that costs R17 extra.”

I can’t imagine that cellphone company exec being happy about that. Yet every month, SA cellphone subscribers on contracts are made to pay around R17 a month if they wish to be provided with details of each call, SMS or MMS they’ve sent.

It’s not a compulsory cost – as it used to be – but those who claim their business-related calls from their employers are forced to pay for this so-called “value added” service every month.

And it’s also the only way to keep proper tabs on your bill, says reader Ken Bowley, one of many who have complained to Consumer Watch about this.


“They [the networks] refuse to provide the detail that supports their usage charge invoiced – time of call; number called; duration etcetera,without levying a charge, currently about R17 per month.

“Without proof of delivery – all the related call detail – the customer has absolutely no way of verifying or disputing individual charges,” he said.

“Surely the CPA has some impact on this arrogant approach?”

Well, the CPA does require suppliers to provide “a written record of each transaction to the consumer”, including date and unit price, but cellphone transactions fall under the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act, which only requires that these costs be revealed on the company’s website.

I canvassed both the Independent Communications Authority of SA (Icasa) and the networks on the issue recently.

Icasa’s Fungai Sibanda said the networks argue that they incur “additional billing costs” in producing itemised bills, hence they charge for the service.

Asked whether the regulator had ever challenged the networks on the amount charged per itemised bill, Sibanda said while Icasa was empowered to impose price controls and other “remedies” where there was ineffective competition, it couldn’t do so without first following a market review process, which was in the pipeline.

Vodacom’s executive head of media relations, Richard Boorman, said a monthly R17.10 was charged for an itemised bill because these contain detailed call details “which is expensive from a labour, time and admin perspective”.

“We also cannot require service providers to offer itemised billing or detailed call records to all contract subscribers at no charge since this will have a detrimental impact on their business,” he said.

Cell C said in terms of its licence it was required to provide its customers with a “statement of services rendered” free of charge, listing the cost of the subscription, cost of the “voice service” and the cost of the “data service”.

“Itemised bills are a different matter and operators are allowed to charge a fee to produce itemised bills.”

MTN didn’t respond to my query, but the network’s website states: “Itemised billing allows you to see the details of every call you have made such as the date and time of the call, duration and cost of the call. This includes SMSs, MMSs, GPRS and roaming calls. It costs R17.89 per month, whether you prefer to receive it by post, or view it online – or both!”

But 8ta only charges R17 for itemised bills sent via post, “to cover the costs of printing, handling and postage,” said 8ta’s managing executive Amith Maharaj. “If a customer opts to receive their bill via e-mail, 8ta does not charge.”

How interesting. So the other networks charge R17-ish for itemised billing whether it’s sent to the “post-paid” contract subscriber via snail mail, or whether it’s sent to them electronically, with Vodacom justifying the cost in terms of “labour, time and admin”.

But 8ta will provide this detail free, only levying a R17 fee for “printing, handling and postage” if contract subscribers want their bills posted to them.

And every network charges a flat rate, regardless of the subscriber’s cellular activity for the month.

One thing’s for sure – there’s a healthy layer of profit for the industry in giving us a detailed breakdown of what we’re being charged for.

And no other industry gets away with this. - Pretoria News