By Innocent Ddamulira
March 15, 2014 was the world consumer rights day and in commemoration of the same, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), a body with the mandate to regulate communications in Uganda organised the inaugural communications consumer parliament on March 13, 2014.
This consumer parliament was intended to bring together a spectrum of consumers face to face with the telecom operators in presence of the regulator to present their grievances in a candid but straight forward manner. I was privileged to make a presentation on behalf of the 17 million subscribers alongside the Uganda consumer protection Association which presented a petition to the minister highlighting consumer grievances.
The grievances that heavily dominated the discussion included, among others, dropped calls, unsolicited messages, unsolicited promotion calls, unexplained charges on mobile money, bad complaint handling mechanisms, poor quality services, environment destruction and unexplained data reductions.
It is necessary to contextualise these problems to clearly see the problem, propose appropriate solutions and map a customer centric way forward. Take for example, the effect of unsolicited messages on the customer.
On average, if you receive two unsolicited messages a day from the providers of the network you subscribe to. Simple arithmetic would quickly indicate that considering that each message costs sh110 then you should be losing sh220 daily. If all subscribers lost that average minimum amount this would translate to about sh3.7b lost daily to the already giant telecom sector.
I informed this parliament that this only represents the financial perspective but the inconvenience caused by the unsolicited intrusion of privacy is enormous and must be regulated now. Some of these massages come in past 11:00pm, and no one makes no audit on the interruption of presumably pleasurable activities! I also came out clearly on the complaint handling mechanisms.
While the Communications commission indicated that it received a total of 269 complaints as a regulator and resolved 217 (81%) and 52 (19%) are pending, this is not sufficient indicator of a good mechanism. Wouldn’t a proper complaint handling mechanism indicate the average times lines within which complaints that are escalated to the regulator are solved?
Surprisingly and very interestingly, the telecom operators are not apologetic for the dropped calls! They insisted that a call technically stops billing when it drops. Now this counter argument is made with the assumption that all of you are on per second tariff which is wrong, and besides who wants to have breaks in the middle of conversations?
The solution to the above conundrum can only lie in enactment of an adequate legal framework in form of consumer protection laws as well as specific competition laws. Such laws should be able to spell out clearly the contractual obligations of the telecom operator to the innocent customer, indicate avenues and timelines of re-imbursements should there be any unsolicited service to the customer and also give guidelines on all growing services in the telecom sector such as mobile money and unsolicited messages.
Whereas it is true that UCC has submitted guidelines in relation to unsolicited messages to Parliament for approval, this may not be a lasting solution. Uganda needs consumer protection law as well as completion laws to regulate the fast growing telecom sector.
Other countries in the region have also picked this up; Tanzania, for example, has an independent body, The Fair Competition Commission (FCC). Kenya also has an independent body (MPC) in place.
This makes Uganda the only original East African country with minimum interest in this critical area of legislation.
The writer is from Makerere University Law school
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