Big Phone Bill Blamed on Apple-Microsoft Glitch

When Laura Harris received a GBP2,000 (USD3,150) bill from Vodafone UK, she complained. The bill showed that Harris had used 16 times more data usual, but Vodafone insisted it was correct. Harris escalated her complaint to the third party Ombudsman Service. They agreed with Vodafone; Harris was still liable for the bill. But what had caused Harris’ iPhone to use so much more data than usual? Harris employed Forensic Mobile Services to investigate, and their conclusion was startling:

  • 52 gigabytes of data came from the ‘Mail’ application, used for work emails.
  • One problem that can arise when Microsoft Exchange is used on Apple devices is if an email gets stuck in the outbox. The phone repeatedly tries to send the message, using data on each attempt.

In summary, they blamed the sharp rise in data usage on a glitch with how Harris’ iPhone connected to the email servers at her work. However, this did not influence the Ombudsman’s verdict:

You may not have been aware the applications were actively using data in the background. However, we accept the terms of your contract state that you must pay all charges on the account.

Though it must be frustrating for the customer to get a big bill they could not anticipate, my sympathies lie with Vodafone. Customers want fancy expensive smartphones. They want their smartphones to interact in clever ways with servers used by their employers. And they want to pay the least amount possible for mundane things like phone usage. So when an enormously wealthy business like Apple makes a phone that does not play well with systems sold by another gigantic corporation like Microsoft, who should suffer the cost? Is it Vodafone? I do not think so. That would be like asking for a rebate on a fuel bill because you took a gas-guzzling Bugatti Veyron (which does 10 miles per gallon) on a stupidly long drive because your satnav malfunctioned.

The solution for problems like this lie not with network operators. Regulators increasingly want to force operators to warn customers about high usage, and then block their use, to prevent bill shock. However, sometimes this just addresses the symptoms, not the root causes. If phones do things that users do not understand, the problem lies with the phone, and educating the user about their phone.

An iPhone is a powerful computer. Apple are renowned for designing slick interfaces. Nothing stops Apple from ensuring their systems monitor usage. They could warn customers about unusual usage patterns, and identify which applications use the most data.

And nothing stops phone manufacturers from doing more to educate their customers about the efficiency of data usage. If people who make washing machines can compare how much electricity they use, handset manufacturers could analyze how efficiently their devices use data.

Unfortunately, gadget manufacturers have no desire to do any of these things, because it increases their costs, and highlights where real responsibility lies. They prefer the status quo, where boring old telcos gets suckered for the cost of building networks to carry inefficient data, and are blamed for high bills that reflect actual usage.

Laura Harris is right to be angry, but she should be angry with Apple and Microsoft, not Vodafone. The truth is that national governments prefer to bash national telcos. That is much easier than taking on the international giants of technology. It is shameful that tech companies can allow a ‘stuck’ email to incur thousands of dollars of cost. But until consumers and governments hold them responsible, they will keep selling products with flaws like these.

A full account of Laura Harris’ complaint was reported in the Mail on Sunday.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

3 Comments on "Big Phone Bill Blamed on Apple-Microsoft Glitch"

  1. Rob Chapman Rob Chapman | 1 Jul 2015 at 9:52 am |

    Excellent points here. Sadly we’re seeing more and more of this type of problem, whereby consumers are being punished in one way or another due to either poor planning or a direct lack of consideration by hardware manufacturers.

    In ‘Wake Up Call’ (an old talkRA post) and other more recent stories about devices ‘choosing’ to change SMS text into MMS, for a variety of reasons, clearly show the need for hardware manufactures to properly engage with operator experts and tech-savvy consumer representatives when designing their products and the associated functionality.

    Given smart devices have thousands upon thousands of apps independently developed, we can’t realistically argue that the OS/store owners can control all aspects – but what they can and should be doing is taking accountability for issues such as this by ensuring that their core functions don’t end up causing the valued and loyal customers high bills and sleepless nights.

    It really needs operators to take a stand also. Given that this is only ever likely to manifest on their bills, they should be putting in safety measures to prevent this level of bill shock from occurring in the first place, and they should be lobbying manufactures to try and address the root causes which place them in the stocks.

    • We don’t blame oil companies for inefficient cars, and we don’t blame electricity suppliers for faulty washing machines, so why do telcos get the blame for the inefficient or faulty equipment made by others?

      The global approach to regulating telecoms is to bash telcos whenever international manufacturers of equipment screw up, holding the telco responsible because they are easiest to blame. But why should a UK regulator tell a UK telco to impose expectations on a switch made in China and used in lots of other countries? Why do regulators in European countries pressure European telcos – businesses that actually employ people in their country – to give goodwill credits to unhappy customers who bought an American handset with faulty software?

      The regulators pick on national carriers because they don’t have the strength to take on foreign manufacturers. They prefer to deal with symptoms because they’re incompetent to deal with root causes. But that approach is madness. Telcos are small businesses relative to some of the manufacturers they have to deal with. Nobody would think it’s a good idea to fine Easyjet if all Boeing planes had a fault and Easyjet was just one of many airlines that had leased Boeing planes. They’d focus on the root cause, which lies with Boeing. But in the crazy world of telecoms, you have lots of national regulators pressuring lots of national telcos to address the symptoms of the bugs and bad decisions of a few manufacturers with huge global market share.

  2. Avatar Bartek Bukowski | 1 Jul 2015 at 7:13 pm |


    I agree that quite often telcos get an undeserved hit from regulators and press.

    However, in the described case I find it difficult to blame a single person / company.

    1) Apple could have done a better job with MS Exchange compatibility (which must be a commonly used feature).

    2) The company employing Ms Harris could have possibly (?) configured Exchange server differently (and if so, shouldn’t they reimburse her bill?).

    3) The lady could have asked Vodafone for a voluntary credit limit, installed a data usage monitoring app or might have reacted appropriately to messages about unsuccessful attempts to send email (if these show up on Apple devices? – sorry, I’m into Android, where I’ve seen such info pop up on various models, but if you really want me to waste my time, I can test it on iOS!).

    4) The operator could have put a default credit limit and/or other processes in place to avoid customer’s bill shock and yet another unfavourable story in the media.

    Using the Bugatti analogy (not perfect one-to-one correspondence, but gives a gist):

    1) The manufacturer of this expensive car didn’t install a trip computer to monitor the usage and tell the estimated further distance on petrol in the tank, whereas the low fuel indicator light and sound unfortunately stopped working.

    2) The salesperson from the showroom never mentioned to the buyer about 10mpg fuel consumption.

    3) Bugatti Veyron was handed over to the lady without user’s manual, she didn’t even think to ask for it and never found out how much petrol the car burns, because she wasn’t even looking at the fuel gauge.

    4) The leasing company owning the car had previous complaints from users about such problems, but never updated their processes and welcome packs to warn new users about the high fuel consumption and a common issue with the malfunctioning light/sound on the dashboard.

    …so the lady had to pay loads of money for road assistance to take her wonderful machine to the nearest petrol station! (…which was quite far as she was trying out the high speeds of her supercar in the middle of nowhere).

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