" ITREALMS: Raising stake for subscribers

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Raising stake for subscribers

Increasingly, the environment is getting better for the telecommunications consumers, mostly with the plans to set up Consumer Negotiating Panel by the regulator, reports REMMY NWEKE.

20m subscribers target

AT the first anniversary of the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI) held on Thursday, May 26, 2005 at the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, the nation’s Vice President, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, had projected that by end of this year, 2005, the number of telephone lines in the country would have reached 20 million.

"We are expecting that by the end of this year (2005) the number of telephone lines would have risen to twenty million and the saying that ‘telephone lines is not for the poor’ will finally be laid to rest," he declared.

Also, ITREALMS recalls that in early 2004, Telecom Answers Associates, led by astute expert, Mr. Titi
Omo-Ettu, had proclaimed that the market growth recorded over 140 per cent between August 2001 when the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) went commercial and year ended December 2004.

Consumer Parliment

It was perhaps this increasing subscriber base that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) foresaw that gave birth to the monthly Telecoms Consumer Parliament under its Consumer Affairs Bureau (CAB) in September 2001 to inform, educate and protect all the consumers of telecommunications services in the country.

CAB has as its mission, to serve as the industry’s watchdog by protecting consumers in a professional and courteous manner.

At first, CAB started as a Lagos based forum with its Telecom Consumers Parliament, due to the number of subscribers and operators located in the state, but later, it was extended to the six geographic zones.

End of year edition

Although the last three months of this year saw this forum shifted since October till Wednesday, December 7, which left some industry watchers wondering what has become of the parliament.

The edition which is the last for the year 2005, no doubt, showed the influence this consumer-service providers’ forum has on Nigerians, mostly telecom subscribers, once the information is passed or announcement is made of a date, the old Senate Chamber, at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) Lagos, is always full with participants.

With some coming to complain, others came to know what is happening in the telecom consumerism aspect of the industry, yet another set of subscribers satisfied with one service or another came to give testimonies, at least, to show that efforts of Parliamentarians are not taken for granted.

Reaffirmed support

The fact is that over time, NCC has increasingly reaffirmed its support for the consumers and trying to eschew being seen as telecom operators’ motivated agency but an independent regulator.

Before now, NCC has asserted its authority severally including by insisting that operators take decision that would make consumers of telecom services feel belonged to the Nigerianness of the commission.

One of these assertions was the recent declaration by NCC to set up a Consumer Negotiating Panel (CNP) to face a leading GSM operator, Vmobile Nigeria, for unilaterally withdrawing accumulated subscribers’ validity, recently.

The indication for the panel follows a complaint tendered before the Telecom Consumers Parliament held penultimate Wednesday in Lagos by consumer rights organization.

The organization reported that Vmobile had on inception made its validity open entailing that subscribers could accumulate validity as long as they recharge their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM).

But recently, the operator reduced it to about 90 days without any recourse to the feeling of the subscribers, aside from sending notice through Short Messaging Service (SMS).

Contract is contract

Responding to the issues in his closing remark at the last monthly Parliament for the year 2005, the Executive Vice Chairman and chief executive, NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe decried the decision of the GSM operator, stressing that some of the subscribers must have bought their lines based on that premise.

He said that his office would set up a Consumer Negotiating Panel to discuss with the operator the compensation to be given to the subscribers.

This, he said, could be in the neighbourhood of N5,000 to N10,000 free airtime, depending on the level of validity accumulated by various customers in order for Vmobile to bail itself out of the disrupted contract.

He counselled Vmobile to warm up for the panel by putting its solicitors in place because NCC would soon assemble a group of solicitors from its side to represent consumers at the panel.

"A contract is a contract. If you want to make a change there exists plans including buying your way out and giving enough time for them (customers) to adjust," he said.

According to him, Vmobile would explain to the panel the worth of the cancelled validity to consumers for backing out of the contract without regards.

Prior to this withdrawal amongst others, some validity accumulation on the network was not specified, and in most cases it was a selling point for the network because some subscribers, would not like to be cut-off the network on the excuse of forgetting to recharge or even travelling out of the country for a long period of time.

This follows the reduction of most validity accumulated to just 90 days, approximately three months, became inappropriate while some subscribers have actually accumulated up to 2014 and above, especially for the prepaid consumers.

Standing panel

In the past, NCC has succeeded in making sure that telcos do not advertise what they are not capable of offering to the market, and using very tiny words to inscribe conditions on promotion was abolished; which may not even be readable to the consumers.

Above all, what NCC has achieved with its current steps and more is to reclaim and stamp its authority which in the earlier years of GSM advent purportedly resided with the operators, just as they smile to the banks and Nigerian subscribers groan unchecked.

This move to set up CNP, hopefully would not stop with ‘incursion’ into Vmobile action against the subscribers, but should be made a standing panel to address such similar cases as indiscriminate removal of credits and arbitrary tariff deduction even without making calls on some other networks, in order to continuously determine some of these issues that receive good representation from the subscribers to the operators especially at the negotiating table.

CTOs concern

Top of these anomalies seems to be that the operators change call tariffs indiscriminately without concern to the Commercial Telephone Operators (CTOs), who most of the time load huge sum of credits, only to be informed that the tariff has been altered upwards.

Apart from aiding their customers to literarily run away, recovery
of business fiscal flow becomes extremely difficult.

It also goes that in some of the networks, subscribers have raised the issue of topping credit, with say a N1000 in the night with the hope of making urgent morning calls the following day just to discover this amount has been wrongly deducted either in part or in whole, in the name of access charges on networks which upposedly should not have reduced any kobo.

Consistency on the part of NCC will not only place the agency aright but adorn it with the trust of both the consumers and service providers alike.

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