SCMP Thursday, August 17, 2000

Mobile mania sees number of phones outstrip land lines


The number of mobile phones in Hong Kong has outstripped the number of regular phones, official figures show.

One million mobiles have been bought in the past year, and there are now 4.6 million in use - 67 for every 100 people - compared with only 3.9 million land lines in homes and offices, the Office of the Telecommunications Authority reports.

Office spokeswoman Kay Yau Ka-yee said mobiles had become an essential item rather than a luxury item for most people and it was difficult to predict when the mobile market would be saturated.

"Now, even housewives and the elderly have mobile phones - the popularity of the product has made it become a basic service in everybody's life," Ms Yau said.

Hong Kong is already believed to have the highest penetration rate of mobile phones in Asia, and many people are buying a second handset just for social calls. "To keep in communication with friends and family, instead of having just a fixed line, you'll have a mobile with you regardless of your age or your occupation.

"Many young people will find mobile services attractive because they're cheap, or their parents may buy the phone for them. I also understand that many people will have more than one mobile phone."

The office's latest figures show that in June there were 4.6 million mobile subscribers, compared with 3.5 million last year. The figure includes people who have bought increasingly popular pre-paid SIM cards, which can be put into any handset and are popular with parents and employers who want to ensure their children or domestic staff do not run up big bills.

The number of fixed land lines, however, has grown much more slowly, creeping up from 3.7 million in June last year to 3.9 million this May, the most recent month for which figures have been compiled. That number includes all residential and business lines, and counts every extension in an office set-up as a separate line.

A price war between Hong Kong's six mobile networks broke out early last year when customers first became able to switch companies without having to change numbers. Almost 140,000 people now change networks every month to take advantage of discounts and offers.

But not all customers are satisfied. The Consumer Council warned subscribers on Tuesday to read the fine print in their contracts carefully or risk being hit with surprise bills for services such as voicemail and conference calling. The council last month demanded new rules to protect customers from unfair phone deals after a surge in the number of complaints about phone and Internet services.

More than 2,000 people protested over poor service or unexpectedly high bills in the first half of the year, and the council has joined forces with the Office of the Telecommunications Authority, which is drafting a new industry code of practice, in the hope of providing better consumer protection.

Ms Yau said that despite the popularity of mobiles, householders were unlikely to get rid of their regular phones soon.

"I think every piece of equipment has its own use," she said. "Everybody now has a fixed line and if prices remain competitive . . . you're spending a fixed amount of $90 per month, no matter how long you're on the phone. So compared with mobile services, which are still charged by the minute, they are still attractive, especially for people with big families who want to know they'll only pay $90."