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Strengthening consumerism in telecoms sector

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ADEYEMI ADEPETUN writes on the challenge of consumerism in telecoms and efforts put forward to block the loopholes. 

The experience of a customer is hardly ever an exciting one all through. Some customers have very memorable experiences with products or services while several others would rather put their memories behind as they are, to say the very least, disappointing.
  
This happens because even the best products sometimes manifest factory defects after purchase while in the case of services there could be service delivery failure.
  
The challenge of poor customer satisfaction cuts across all the sectors of the economy. From aviation to manufacturing, hospitality business, education, transport, eCommerce and even telecoms, there have been stories of poor services. For instance, this is why in Aviation, a flight scheduled for 9 am on a particular day may not hit the sky until late in the evening, and sometimes the next day. Most times, for this infraction, no official is punished. 
   
Indeed, despite the level of development in the ICT/telecoms sector, the industry is not immune from the challenge of poor customer satisfaction. Consumerism is also a major issue in the industry. The sector has been confronted with several complaints, which came by from poor services such as drop calls, unsolicited SMS, fake products (phones); incomplete calls, illegal deductions, among others.  
   

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It must be mentioned that the telecoms sector, over the years, has contributed immensely to Nigeria’s economy and the lives of Nigerians. The advancement of mobile phone usage from basic telephony to new enhanced services and the introduction of new technology within diverse sectors of the country have seen the sector grow massively. The sector has experienced rapid growth and helps in for example easier banking services (bank mobile apps) and access to e-learning platforms to Nigerians.
   
Noble as this appears, consumerism is still a source of concern for both operators and the regulator. This can be attested to by the thousands of complaints received from consumers and escalated by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to service providers for quick resolutions.
  
The latest NCC report showed that 11,327 consumer complaints received through the 622 between 2019 and 2020, 11,288 which translates to 99.1 per cent, have been successfully resolved.
   
But in commemorating the 2021 World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) on March 15, the NCC has however, reiterated the need to prioritise consumerism going forward. It stressed that consumers must get value for their money. 
The place of consumer-centric regulations
The Nigerian Communications Act 2003 – enjoins the NCC to protect the interest of the consumers, which the Commission is doing through subsidiary legislations, guidelines and directions that address consumer concerns and stipulate responsibilities of all stakeholders. 
   
Declarations were made to curtail the excesses of some operators and to expand the frontiers of freedom for the consumers. Warnings had been handed out and fines have been imposed on erring operators. Determinations have also been made by the NCC to ensure consumers are most times, not shortchanged and not denied their privileges and rights. 
   
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According to NCC, the foregoing revealed the extent it could go to protect the interests of telecoms consumers; and to successively restate its commitment to its ethos of fairness, firmness and forthrightness – the doctrinal tripod of its regulatory mandate. 
  
The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, disclosed that the Commission has ensured full compliance with Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card registration guidelines by the service providers and telecoms consumers. 
   
Danbatta said this was to ensure proper registration to stop the use of improperly-registered SIMs, which usage is difficult to track. 
    
According to him, having a credible subscriber database helps in tracing a SIM card to the real owner in case of any criminal investigation. He said this will help in curbing the painful rise in the tempo of kidnapping, robberies, banditry and similar crimes committed with the aid of the use of SIM cards. 
  
“It is, therefore, pertinent to say that the linking of SIM and National Identity Number (NIN) databases will further help us in this direction toward protecting the consumers and all citizens at large. In this regard, the Commission wishes to echo the voice of Mr. President by thanking all telecom subscribers for their understanding and co-operation in the ongoing SIM-NIN harmonisation exercise.

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Blocking service loopholes 
Several directions have been handed to service providers to ensure consumers are not short-changed by service providers. Some of the directions include Do-Not-Disturb, Data Roll-Over, automatic renewal of data services, and forceful subscription to data services and Value-Added Services.
  
The Commission has approved the restructuring of legacy consumer outreach and engagement programmes. These modifications were made to increase the reach to telecoms consumers wherever they are. 
  
Some of the new information and education programmes include Telecom Town Halls on Radio, a phone-in dialogic programme hosted via radio stations across the country where consumers at the grassroots level are engaged in their local language; Telecom and The Citizen – a biweekly Twitter Live Chat targeting social media users; Telecom TV Dialogue – a monthly television-based discourse on topical telecom issues, among others.
   
In keeping with the global best practice of digital public communication for information and complaints management, the Commission has continued to leverage social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube, to inform and educate consumers and to use them as complaints channels for the Commission. 
   
Also, the NCC Consumer Web Portal serves as an alternative online channel for lodging complaints and making inquiries.

The specially created toll-free number 622 and DND shortcode 2442 are also active. They are emplaced respectively to enable consumers to escalate unresolved complaints earlier reported to service providers, and to manage unsolicited messages. Just last month, there was a report that “NCC’s DND crashes unsolicited SMS by 96.6 per cent in three years”.
   

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Further, the Commission has reviewed the Consumer Complaint categories and Service Level Agreement (CC/SLA). The CC/SLA provides complaints categories, the timelines for resolving complaints and prescribes penalties for defaulting operators. This has ensured quantifiable improvements in the consumer complaint management process by the operators. 
  
Additionally, given the challenges of security in the country, the Commission has completed and launched Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) in 18 states and the Federal Capital Territory. The process for the completion of the centers in the remaining states of the federation is ongoing. 

It must also be stated that the toll-free three-digit 112 Emergency Number has also been created to bring succour and necessary assistance from appropriate Response Agencies (RAs) to address the emergency needs of citizens.

Protecting the Consumer going forward 
The process of ensuring customers get value for their money started as far back as 2017 when NCC declared the year as “Year of the Telecom Consumer”, in recognition of the central place the consumer occupies in the telecoms ecosystem and in the emergent digital economy. In the same year, the WCRD focused on “Better Digital World”. The declaration by the Commission and the focus by WCRD 2017 emphasised the need to build a digital world consumers can trust. 
   
In 2021, the theme for WCRD is “Tackling Plastic Pollution”, and the plan focused on raising awareness and engaging state and non-state actors on the global plastic pollution crisis. This is coming three years after the NCC drafted the Nigerian Communications Industry eWaste Regulations in 2018.

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The objective of the regulation is to manage e-waste; promote reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery; improve the environmental management system of operators in the telecom industry and reduce greenhouse emissions as well as enhance sustainable development efforts. This is also targeted at ensuring that Nigerians get quality devices that are not harmful to their lives.

In reconnecting with the theme for this Year’s celebration, it bears restating, that, while the NCC is concluding processes to issue the regulation on electronic waste, it is mindful of the fact that many ICT and telecom devices have plastic components, whose waste materials could worsen plastic pollution. 
   
In other words, NCC reckoned that improper disposal of such disused ICT-plastic embedded products has grave implications on public health, and especially in achieving Goals 11, 12 and 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030. 
   
The commission has reiterated that all its activities are designed to give assurance to the consumers that their interests are of paramount importance in the sector to the Commission. 
  
“This is because without the telecoms consumers, there will be no operators and there would be no regulator. Therefore, we seize this opportunity to assure millions of telecom consumers across the country that the Commission will not rest on its oars until the challenges of telecoms consumers have been reduced to the barest minimum,” Danbatta stated.

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