CABLE provider UPC's continuing refusal to meet the demands of a Slovak market regulator was the topic of a meeting between President Rudolf Schuster and the Slovak Association of Consumers.
In the April 15 meeting, Association head Julius Koval called UPC pricing "the most urgent problem in consumer protection", and complained of the inability of state regulatory bodies to enforce price regulations set last year.
UPC was fined Sk25 million in July 2001 for what the Telecom Office (TÚ), the industry's regulatory body, called illegal price hikes from the previous February, when UPC customers in some areas saw their bills increase by as much as 40 per cent. TÚ had limited price increases to the rate of inflation, then around 12 per cent. Besides the fine, TÚ ordered UPC to bring their pricing in line with regulations retroactive to January 2001, meaning refunding excess charges to customers.
Last August, UPC appealed TÚ's decision to the Supreme Court, but withdrew the appeal in January 2002, thus accepting the regulator's verdict. However, after only partially paying the fine and ignoring refund requirements, UPC submitted calculations to TÚ in early March showing another planned price rise.
UPC claims that real monthly costs per subscriber are Sk620, while the proposed increase would bring monthly rates to Sk480. UPC also claims cable fees in Slovakia are considerably lower than in neighbouring countries.
The conflict, say industry experts, highlights weaknesses in Slovakia's regulatory system. According to TÚ Deputy Chairman Juraj Michna, his body has no legal instruments to force UPC to adjust prices or to strip UPC of its operating license.
Neither can Slovakia's licensing authority, the Council for Broadcasting and Retransmission, revoke UPC's license for non-compliance. According to council head Jarmila Grujbarová, the organisation's only duty is to assess the quality of services and whether copyrights are being respected.