Mobile operator Orange bills French doctor €160,000 for one month of Internet use

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Examples of 3G-enabled mobile phones.
Image: Mila Zinkova.

In a third case of staggering sums billed for "unlimited" Internet access reported this week, a French emergency-room doctor from Fontainebleau beats all records with a €159,212 (US$237,417) bill. The telephone-number-sized bill covers one month's use of an unlimited 3G dongle on Orange's network; the beleaguered Dr Jean Spadaro has been battling this for six months.

"To begin with I thought it was a joke", said Spadaro, confirming a story from l'Observateur du Valenciennois; The same newspaper that revealed last week a similar case — Eric Gernez, a café owner in Petite-Forêt near to Valenciennes — who received a bill for €45,000. Christophe Aupy-Fargues, head of an insurance brokerage firm in Saint-Herblain, west of Nantes, and another unlimited 3G dongle user, confirmed to Ouest-France on Monday the blocking of payment on a bill for €39,500 demanded by Orange.

"I subscribed in November 2008 to a basic internet access by 3G dongle at €30 per month [...] seeing my bills reach sums going up to €860 in April, I decided in May to subscribe to unlimited access by 3G dongle with Orange business at €50 per month. When I saw my bill for May, I couldn't believe my eyes: €159,212, for one month's connection, it's impossible, especially as we don't use it all of the time" added Spadaro, the father of two children, aged sixteen and nineteen.

On opening the envelope in June, he expected to read an amount neighbouring the cost of his subscription; but, to his horror, it was €159,212; a demand large enough to make an emergency-room doctor's head spin.

Cquote1.svg When I saw my bill for May, I couldn't believe my eyes: €159,212, for one month's connection, it's impossible Cquote2.svg

—Jean Spadaro

Spadaro claims France Télécom (Orange's parent company) never explained to him that the "unlimited" package only related to the time spent surfing on the Internet — not the volume of traffic — limited to one Gigabyte per month. The package's quota corresponds to moderate usage (reception of simple emails for example). As normal Internet users, the members of the Spadaro family surfed Facebook, YouTube, sent emails with attachments, received same, &c. That volume of traffic proved to be costly. €0.17 per Megabyte, or €170 per Gigabyte. Until the bills arrived, the Spadaro family were using the Internet, ignorant of the cost being incurred.

The doctor's bills, not listed in detail, are €53 for February, €346 for March, €860 for April before soaring to more than €159,000 in May. Spadaro also claims, with evidence of his letters in hand, he had increased the number of protest actions and received, in response, "warnings with threats of seizure".

Battle-weary after six months of contacting his operator, Spadaro has lost all patience. "Since June, I've spent hours writing emails, letters or calling Orange to ask for an explanation. I've been passed from call centre to call centre, from customer services to debt collection. No one at Orange was able to give me the slightest clarification. A real wall", he said. He has never contacted a consumer association, "due to lack of time and also because I trusted the people with whom I was speaking".

At the end of last week he stumbled upon the article on the Observateur du Valenciennois internet site concerning the case of Eric Gernez. He then also threatened Orange with the press. "The result did not tardy", he continues. "A customer services representative and a debt collector immediately contacted me by email November 16. And immediately afterwards I received a credit for €136,529". A first credit having already been sent to him in June, Orange now considers the dossier as "definitively resolved".

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This resolution does not satisfy Jean Spadaro at all, who simply wishes that the bill be cancelled. "I have been a client with Orange for 17 years. I don't want to attack their image, but here, enough is enough. It's a question of principles", he says, highlighting that "on forums, dozens of subscribers tell similar stories". Furthermore, the two credits do not reimburse him for all of the additional fees he has incurred. "The following months, Orange tried to debit the sum from my account, causing rejection fees from my bank and unpaid fees from the operator. Around €35 each time".

Exasperated by the whole affair, Spadaro awaits the end of his current contract with Orange in February next year. "I will cancel all of my subscriptions to Orange: 3G+ dongle, but also mobile telephone and internet", he promises. He has been a client with the operator since 1997.

Cquote1.svg We will work with each client Cquote2.svg

—Jean-Paul Cottet, director of the business market for France

Orange has promised to work with each case of overbilling. Interviewed on France 2 on Wednesday, Jean-Paul Cottet, director of the business market for France, said that the number of problems were marginal. According to him, 4,000 professionals have opted for a package with a 3G key. It is "a 24/24 but not unlimited offer. Out of these 4,000 cases, there are 1% which are a problem" he explained, listing about thirty such "absurd bills". "We will correct that", he promised. "We will work with each client".

Jean-Paul Cottet pointed out that the general public offers better protection to the client. Once the authorised download limit is reached, the service quality diminishes but there is no overbilling.

Asked about the information given to clients about the conditions of billing elements not included in the package, Elizabeth Alvez, communications representative for the regional department for the North of France, said that "all the tarification information is available at points-of-sale and on orange.fr. This information is given as part of the dialogue between the client and the vendor. We are obliged to communicate the prices." Nevertheless, one must first of all take the time to read the entire contract with the salesperson before signing.

Sources

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