More transparency and affordabilityLives of South Koreans are tough under a double whammy of severe wealth discrepancies and the economic slowdown. A majority of middle- and working-class families trudge along to pay for expensive education, general cost of living and medical fees amid job insecurity and reduced income. Wireless phone bills add to their worries.
More than 52 million people are subscribed to a wireless phone network, exceeding the country’s population of 48.87 million. A household of four members spends an average of 300,000 won ($283) to 400,000 won on wireless phone services per month.
According to consumer spending data for 2012 compiled by the national statistics office and the Bank of Korea, food took up 27.8 percent of household income, followed by education (15.1 percent), housing (12.7 percent), transportation (11.6 percent), telecommunications fees (7 percent) and health care (5.8 percent).
The share of telecommunications fees in household spending is more than triple the average 2 percent range for countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In recent Statistics Korea data on household spending, monthly expenditure on telecommunications fees surged 12 percent to 155,252 won in the third quarter, up from 138,636 won in the same period of last year.
The People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy has been campaigning to bring down wireless phone bills through emphasizing the public function of those services.
It reported on the price collaboration and profiteering practices by three wireless carriers to the Fair Trade Commission and filed a suit to make the Korea Communications Commission disclose all the data it has on wireless operators for licensing, disclosure and surveillance on their business practices, including the comparative basic rates on voice calls, data and texts.
The Seoul Administrative Court in its first trial concluded that it was illegal for the KCC to keep the data on basic rates and other information confidential despite speculation that wireless companies overcharge for their services.
The judges ruled that wireless services now have a public role and that the industry was bred on privileges of monopoly. They concluded that telecom companies should disclose the way they set basic plans for wireless services in order to ease public suspicion. Under this reasoning, they ordered them to disclose how the total minimum cost of individual packages is charged, as well as the details on setting the final cost. The verdict was a landmark in upgrading the role of public services and civilian rights.
Telecommunications services under the electric and telecommunications business law clearly have public features. Telecom companies therefore have a duty to provide fair and cheap services to all people. Wireless services have now become indispensable and primary in Korean people’s lives. Service carriers therefore would have to endure a certain extent of limitation in business practices to fulfil their public role.
Even if basic rates should be protected as business confidentiality, companies must agree to part ways with some of their privacy to create a more affordable and transparent price for the public service through disclosure.
The Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, which is in charge of communications policies, maintains that basic rates cannot be publicly disclosed to ensure competition of the wireless industry. But the government should place higher priority in protecting the interests of the public and consumers over corporations. The people plead for cheaper wireless phone services.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a team member of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy.
By Ahn Jin-geol