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Can NTL give me free upgrades I don’t want and charge to downgrade?

Last week I received this e-mail from a ValueIreland.com reader complaining about a problem that I’ve only recently begun to follow up on myself as it affects me personally as well. Here’s the e-mail:

I want to find out about what I can do about what NTL are doing to me at the moment. In some ways you might say that I have nothing to complain about, but I’m not happy.

They recently upgraded both my TV and broadband packages – originally at no extra cost. They tell me that they’re doing this as part of improving the service that they provide to their customers. I get more channels (I think – I don’t really care if I get more kids channels) and I get faster broadband. I can’t even tell that I get faster broadband, so big deal.

After a couple of months, they then came along and started to charge me more for the packages that I’m getting.

When I started to check about saving money recently, I thought that I could downgrade my packages again back down to the versions that I was on previously.

The version of the service I was on now have different names though since since technically I’m on the package name (with extra benefits) that I asked for when I signed up to them last year.

This is the bit that really annoys me – when I try to downgrade my package, they are telling me that they’re going to charge me €10.

Can they do this? I only want to get the same service that I asked for and agreed to pay for originally, but now it’s going to cost me more to not change what I’m getting now, and will charge me more to go back to what I originally asked for.

There must be some consumer protection laws that they’re breaking in backing me into this costly corner? I tried contacting the Consumers Association, the Consumer Agency and COMREG about this, but its been 6 weeks now and none of them have answered me.

This was my response:

First of all, the main organisation that could do anything about this situation is the National Consumer Agency – if it were the case that NTL were breaking any consumer legislation. But as regular readers would know, I wouldn’t have any expectation that that would happen anyway.

The Consumers Association of Ireland is a pressure group that has no powers. COMREG, though they oversee NTL for phone and broadband services, isn’t responsible for overseeing their TV service – and anyway COMREG only deals with industry, not consumer related complaints.

So, to your complaint. I have been investigating this very issue myself recently as the same thing has happened to me.

As far as I have been able to find out so far, there is nothing that NTL have done here to break any consumer related legislation.

Looking at the three stages individually, you can see this a bit clearer:

1. They gave you an increased package for the same money. Albeit for a short period of time, you got more for your money. Something to be applauded if steps 2 and 3 didn’t actually follow.

2. They increased their prices. Since we don’t operate in a price controlled economy, businesses are allowed increase their prices as they chose. So, technically, there’s nothing in what NTL did here that’s against the law.

3. They’re charging you to downgrade your package. This is something that I’m still following up more on.

To be charged a fee by any company for them to do anything, you must be informed about that fee up front. It must be in their terms and conditions, or if they’re later added to their terms and conditions, you must be informed about those changes.

This is where I believe that NTL are taking the piss. This downgrade charge, as far as I can find out, was never in their original contracts – I signed up in 2003 and the charge wasn’t there.

With the recent availability of the infamous “boxes” that people used on NTL,it was quite common for people to downgrade their packages to the cheapest possible because they were getting everything for free – but just needed the basic NTL subscription.

In order to try to plug the hole in their revenues before they could come up with the necessary security to make these boxes useless (as they’ve done now), I reckon NTL brought in those downgrade charges.

I don’t remember ever seeing any notified change to their terms and conditions to announce these new charges. Yet, if you ring them, they’ll insist that you must pay it.

I don’t believe that they can do this. I’m going to follow up on this further, but in the meantime you should contact the Consumers Association of Ireland to get pressure put on NTL to get their T’s & C’s confirmed and updated, and follow up further with the National Consumer Agency to get them to confirm if these charges are not allowed based on the contract that you signed up to originally.

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