ICT Consumer Headache [analysis]

Awareness of consumers’ rights sees rapid improvement but quality challenges persist

When the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), together with telecom companies, consumer rights protection agencies and consumers met for the first time last year, tempers flared.

For close to six hours, the hostility was evident as several accusations and counter accusations were exchanged.

The same group of people met again slightly over a year on Mar. 31 at UCC’s second communications consumer dialogue intended to facilitate discourse amongst stakeholders in Uganda’s telecommunications sector.

The issues and the venue remained the same at the forum held to commemorate World Consumer Rights Day, which falls on Mar. 15.

This time though the dialogue held under the theme, “Empowering Consumers through Knowledge,” was done with mutual respect even when telecom services consumers evidently disagreed with the telecoms on a number of issues.

Three non-profit consumer protection agencies led by the Uganda Consumers Protection Association (UCPA) last year issued a petition to UCC with 10 complaints leveled against telecom firms operating in the country.

The complaints included the fact that consumers were continuously being harassed by telecom companies through unsolicited SMS some of which were being charged for.

The petition further noted that despite numerous complaints, consumers had suffered frustration with dropped calls, blocked calls, robo calls, unclear mobile money transfer charges unclear and ‘fraudulent’ terms and conditions of promotions which were sometimes wrapped in rosy language such as ‘free airtime’ and charges on unsolicited ringtones.

UCPA and its co-petitioners wanted a prompt response from UCC as it is the regulator of the communications sector.

And they did.

UCC said by the end of 2014 it had carried out audits of telecom operators – MTN, Uganda Telecom, and AfricellOrange – and found that although there is need for further improvement, the operators have enhanced their frameworks for complaints.

Going by UCC’s performance audits carried out in the last two years for all telecom firms in the country, their performance has improved by 60%. Where customers used to complain of losing credit even when calls are dropped, the telecom companies have now set their default profile on the per-second billing pulse, thanks to improvement in infrastructure.

On Nov. 14, last year, UCC also directed all operators to activate the universal code *196# to enable consumers of their services to opt out of messages or services they find unnecessary.

The same code can now be used to activate the ‘Do Not Disturb’ register. What this means now is that the consumer has been empowered to choose, said Ibrahim Bbosa, UCC’s manager for Consumer Affairs.

He said, using these kinds of interventions in the period starting November to date, the three telecom firms have registered and acted upon close to 190,000 complaints.

As a result, UCC received 696 complaints, 75,604 queries and the number of days for resolving these has drastically reduced from six days to two days.

Of the 696 complaints UCC received, 36% were about billing 24% on unsolicited SMS, 9% on data and mobile money 5% were from value added services while caller tunes and airtime loading accounted for 1% respectively.

Although the number of complaints registered at UCC was bigger compared to the 269 registered in the last quarter of 2013, this, Bbosa noted, means that first, consumers’ rights knowledge has rapidly improved.

“But also the few complaints to UCC mean that the operators are now doing their job,” Bbosa said, “But we are not yet there.”

To further check the telecom firms’ promotions done under unclear terms and conditions, UCC is developing up to 19 regulations that will soon be taken to Parliament for approval.

UCC has also accredited independent web developers to maintain websites to provide a one-stop, comprehensive and up-to-date sources for prices of various communication services. The websites www.kompare.ug and www.price-check.co.ug can be used by consumers to compare prices of the service providers so they could make informed decisions.

Regarding mobile money transfers not being transparent enough, UCC noted that this is a cross-sector telecoms and banking service.

However, a formal memorandum of understanding between UCC and Bank of Uganda is mooted to clearly address the roles of the different regulators in enhancing mobile money access, fairness and affordability.

UCC is also in the process of developing licensee-courier obligations to handle both long standing and emerging concerns in courier and postal services including mysterious theft of parcels.

Telecoms respond

Oscar Kabata, the Uganda Telecom regulatory and competition affairs aisor, said the telecoms have instituted a number of responses to consumers’ responses including investing in newer and better technologies and network expansion.

Over the last two years, the telecom firms have increased their investment into the 2G network from 3,150 to 3,558 sites 1,309 to 1,618 sites (3G) while the sites for the 4G network rose from 39 to 160 sites — an increase of over 310%. In addition, the fibre optic cable has been spread to 80% of inhabited land in the country.

Rebecca Kabugo, Uganda Telecom’s head of customer service, said although all telecoms continue notifying their customers about the *196# code, which can now enable them to block unsolicited content, consumers need to understand that there are still a number of unregulated content providers in the sector.

However, Kabugo said consumers need to be mindful of the people and organizations such as restaurants, shops, websites and social media sites where they are sometimes requested to leave their contact details including their phone numbers. These often send unsolicited messages without using the telecoms as third parties.

On tariffs, call rates and promotions, the service providers say they have enhanced their transparency by giving detailed information at the point of sim card activation.

They have also used various communication channels such as websites and other social media platforms. They are also providing end of call notification to inform customers of charges passed on account balance after the consumer makes the call. These have been enhanced over the last one year. There is also a communications infrastructure working group that meets at UCC every week to look at ways of how best to further improve their services.

Vandalism has also been a source of frustration to telecom players over the years. In 2014 alone, about 100,000 litres of fuel and 200 batteries were stolen.

For Uganda Telecom alone, 60% of lightning arrestors on Uganda Telecom sites were stolen. Kabata said an entire Uganda Telecom site at Kabulasoke, in Mpigi District was decommissioned by thieves. This is besides the rampant cable cuts done maliciously or otherwise.

Sam Watasa, the executive director of UCPA who was also the lead petitioner last year, expressed his appreciation with regard to the recent developments in the sector.

He was particularly happy with the change in attitude of the telecoms considering that a year ago the firms had shown the impression that they had no control over third party content providers such as SMS companies.

“We appreciate the effort for the increased investment in infrastructure. We hope that it will eventually improve consumer experience,” Watasa said.

But still, Watasa is not comfortable with the carefully crafted language used in the responses offered by the telecoms as well as the options instituted.

“Service providers need to act on this because it is not enough to have *196# option it should be promoted.”

Watasa says the percentage in dropped calls may have fallen drastically but still consumers suffer emotionally. Unclear promotions too are still going on and these might need the intervention of Parliament.

Watasa said despite the overall improvements in the sector consumer ignorance is still widespread. They still enter most of these promos without full knowledge.

The consumer protection agencies however are noticing emerging areas including data products.

More ICT headaches

Kin Kariisa, the CEO of Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) who also doubles as the board chairperson of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), is not happy with the way UCC has handled the digital migration issue. He expressed his frustration at the ongoing aerts being run by some pay television companies saying that they are the preferred digital migration providers yet UCC is quiet about it.

Kariisa insisted that this is wrong and UCC needs to rein in the pay television firms, “If we are to make Uganda a Pay Television country, we are going to impoverish Ugandans because of digital migration.”

Vincent Bagiire, the ICT committee chairperson in Parliament, also noted that the people he represents in the eastern district of Mayuge have a lot to complain about but the majority of them are illiterate while others may be persons with disabilities. These types of consumers are not favoured by the mechanisms put in place by UCC to complain about poor communications services.

According to UCC, as of December, 2014, there are 20 million mobile phone users in Uganda, while the number of internet users also shot up to 10.8 million.

In the same period, over 60% of households in the country possessed a radio set 35.7% owned a television set while 96% of people listened to radio and 40% watch television respectively.

Eng. John Nasasira, the Minister of ICT who declared his conflict of interest at the meeting because he is also a consumer, noted that the dialogue should enable service providers to address the pertinent issues as required of them.

“We should not have quality of service worse than the previous year since technology keeps changing,” he said. “We cannot have better technology and see deterioration in quality of service. That is unacceptable.”

He added that the ICT ministry is in the process of coming up with a five-year strategy that will include 19 regulations including those that take care of consumer protection.

Also, the ministry is in talks with the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development to negotiate the tax regime in the sector, which he said was stifling the sector.

Source : The Independent

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