Telecom companies and customers’ protection
The gains of the telecommunications sector appear to be gradually eroding with the creeping in of complacency and indolence by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the various operators. The growth of the sector, particularly since 2001 when the Global System of Mobile (GSM) communication operators were licensed has hitherto been quite rapid. Indeed, the post-2001 period can be rightly described as the golden age of telecommunications in Nigeria with the combination of internet service availability and enhanced use of data through the flourishing of social media and increased wifi usage. Prior to 2001, the inefficiencies of the public sector provision of telecommunication services through the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) had been, to say the least, nightmarish. If history is to be kind to the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the licensing of the GSM operators is one of the major achievements that administration would be remembered for.
Over the past 20 years, an estimated investment value of about $75 billion has been made in the sector and despite this, the companies in the sector appear to be struggling currently. This is clearly reflected in the myriad of complaints from consumers about poor services which suggest that it’s not yet Uhuru for the sector. Recent consumer survey indicate clearly that the problems in telecommunications, with particular reference to mobile telephony are experienced nationwide, from Lagos to Port Harcourt, Kano to Maiduguri, Aba to Katsina and Ogbomosho to Jalingo, among others. The complaints range from increased dropped calls, aborted Short Message Service (SMS), truncated calls, the menace of unsolicited SMS, depletion of credits, improper billing systems, slow data services and a host of others.
Records from the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC indicate that as at the first quarter of 2021, over 3,000 complaints were lodged against GSM or mobile network operators which are over 430 higher than the corresponding period in 2020. The major culprits for these poor services are MTN with over 50 per cent of the complaints, followed by Airtel, Globacom and then 9Mobile among others in that order. The report further indicates that issues relating to billings, quality of service and unsavoury experiences for voice and for data were the three topmost complaints from telecommunications consumers
Though blames are big enough to throw around on this degrading state of the services in the sector, the major burden should be placed at the doorstep of the regulator, the NCC. In as much as the NCC has been able to resolve a lot of problems that have arisen in the management of activities in the sector, it appears to be largely reactive and not proactive in its management style. The records indicate that the NCC has resolved over 90 per cent of the service-related complaints tabled before it, but it should not wait for problems to arise before it begins to address them. The NCC may need to liaise with other agencies of government in addressing the challenges the operators face in the provision of services in the sector. First, the lack of foreign exchange availability for the required inputs by operators is one of such challenges for which the NCC may need to engage the Central Bank of Nigeria for some form of reprieve in this regard. Also, there are issues of insecurity which hamper operations in certain parts of the country and thus jeopardise upgrade plan by these operators. There is also the perennial power generator and distribution challenges in the country which often exacerbate the incidence of numerous poor services. Some of these challenges have been articulated by the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON).
The country needs to sustain and maximise the gains in telecommunications. In fact, the recorded growth in the country’s GDP in recent times have been traceable to the services sector; with the bulk of such gains linked to the tremendous progress in telecommunications. The NCC should rise to the occasion and ensure that the country is not left behind in the world of emerging technologies that would further enhance the growth of the country’s digital economy. The developments in global telecommunications are quite rapid and minor issues such as drop calls and slow data operations should not be allowed to detract the country from benefiting maximally from the emerging digital trends in the twenty first century.
Besides, consumers and subscribers of the GSM in the country are highly vulnerable and indeed unjustly exploited by the service providers with little or no consequence. This is an area that the NCC can be more proactive by ensuring a structure that will automatically recompense customers who are subjected to poor services and have to pay for these, for causes beyond their control. Notwithstanding the challenges being encountered by the service providers, they have a duty to keep improving their deliveries while using the advantage of economy of scale at their disposal to reduce customers’ inconvenience to the barest minimum. But the NCC must spearhead consumer protection at all times.
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