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On the plight of telecom consumers

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Without consumer’s demand or patronage, producers would lack one of the key motivations to produce or provide services to sell to consumers. The consumer also forms a strategic part of the distribution chain in the overall economy. Succinctly put, consumer is the end of production cum distribution network; without which there cannot be producers/providers. Every buoyant economy rises and falls on the actions and reactions of the consumer.

Narrowing it down to the telecommunications sector, especially as it affects Nigeria, telecoms consumer is one of the major determinants propelling growth of the telecommunications industry. With a base of over 154 million subscribers, the Nigerian consumers dominate the African telecommunications landscape. The consumers provide the revenues that Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) need to keep moving. Yet, they do not get the best satisfaction when it comes to services. In 2015, Nigerian telecoms consumers coughed out a whopping sum of $5.6 billion, which was spent on telecommunications services alone. In 2016, it was topped up by another $1 billion, making it a total of $6.6 billion.

After a long period of neglect and exploitation, finally the Nigerian telecoms consumers have received the required recognition from the telecommunications regulatory agency – the NCC. On March 15, 2017, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) historically declared the year 2017 as the year set aside to focus on the interest of Nigerian subscribers. The essence of the declaration is to highlight the plight of the consumers as regards poor quality of services, being rendered to them by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), and proffer solutions to them. Unsolicited messages, illegal deductions from consumers’ credit, infuriating menace of robotic calls, poor quality of service, charges for unrequested services like caller tunes, call drops, unfriendly internet data plan packages, etc, have become excruciating pains cum challenges to subscribers.

Declaration of 2017 as year of Nigerian Telecom Consumers will go a long way to restore the confidence of the telecom subscribers in the ability of the commission to protect its rights and privileges, which is in line with the mandate of the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC, which is: “To ensure the protection of the rights, privileges and interests of telecommunications consumers, including the physically challenged groups through adequate information dissemination programmes; as well as effective policies and strategies that promote effective and qualitative telecoms service delivery.”

There is no doubt that some of the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have defaulted on their primary responsibilities, to provide qualitative telecommunications services to the Nigerian consumers. The poor network coverage has remained a recurring decimal in the industry. Even when the NCC has provided Do-Not-Disturb (DND) code, to enable consumers control the menace of unsolicited messages, by sending it to 2442, it is yet to abate. Exorbitant charges for services not rendered, or requested have been a small piece of bone in the throat of telecoms consumers. A pathetic situation where Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) imposed unsolicited caller tunes on the consumers, and still deduct money from them, as fees for these tunes leaves much to be desired. Inadequate telecoms infrastructure, especially in the rural areas has contributed immensely to poor network coverage.

Apart from making complaints via the NCC’s designated line of 622, telecoms consumers on the street want a system put in place by the NCC that automatically reverses unjustifiable deductions made on their airtime, without having to embark on bureaucratic voyage of reporting to the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC, or Complaints Commission. The banking sector model, where Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) immediately reverses unpaid debt alert, should be emulated in the telecommunications sector, as part of regulatory measures put in place to protect the telecoms consumers.

Realistically, how many telecoms consumers will start calling the NCC’s complaint line of 622 because their Network Operators short-changed them of N50 for unsolicited caller tunes? How many telecoms consumers will have the patience to keep dialling 622 anytime Network Operator cheats them of N20? How many of the telecoms consumers are observant or literate enough to know when they have been exploited? What will a telecom consumer do if at the end of the month, he has not been able to exhaust his one-month data plan due to poor quality of internet services, and the hosting Network Operator insists that he recharges his data plan before the remaining data will be rolled over, or allowed to expire with the month? What stops the Network Service Providers from rolling over subscriptions to the next month, especially any period there is epileptic internet service? These are thought-provoking questions racing through the minds of telecoms consumers. The Nigerian Telecom Consumer Year project has provided the desired opportunity to all the relevant stakeholders to sit down and iron out ways of addressing the issues once and for all.

A few weeks ago, the NCC summoned the Mobile Network Operators to a meeting, where riot act was read to them on the importance of improving quality of service. As much as I will commend the NCC for the bold step, I want to advocate something more self-sustaining than what is obtainable now. The NCC does not have to compel MNOs all the time, to maintain quality of service in the industry by imposing fines on them, or mandating them to refund certain amount to telecoms consumers via airtime. There should be a system that automatically blocks unsolicited messages from reaching the consumer; without the subscriber sending codes to designated lines. The proposed electronic system should compensate telecoms consumers let’s say with airtime, anytime N50 is deducted for unrequested caller tunes. The system should automatically roll over data subscription plan any month that a particular Network Operator falls below 60 per cent performance, as regards provision of internet services.

Before Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are crucified, I will do justice to them by highlighting some of the bottlenecks that have made improved quality of service an herculean task in the polity. The age-long electricity crisis in the country has been one of the impediments affecting not only Quality of Service (QoS) but also cost of operations incurred by the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). Telecoms infrastructure vandalisation is a major setback, not only in the quest to improve quality of service but in total network coverage cum broadband penetration.

The current Mobile Termination Rate (MTR) of N3.90k/minute is at variance with economic realities on ground – and it is unsustainable. A review has already become inevitable in the industry in order to keep the MNOs above water. Cost of importing modem telecom equipment vis-à-vis exchange rate is strangulating MNOs. What of Right of Way (RoW) hold-up erected by the state governments, which has stood in the way of fibre optics roll out? NCC’s Telecom Consumer project has provided a good platform for both MNOs and telecom consumers to synergise in order to get better telecom services. One of the major achievements of this project is that it will afford telecom consumers a necessary feedback medium needed to address various telecom related challenges.

• Chidiebere writes from Abuja, FCT


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