Protecting African Telecoms Consumers with Right Regulatory Policies

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Concerned by a collective need to give stronger voice to telecoms subscribers across Africa, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), last week, played host to the first conference of African telecoms regulators on consumer affairs in Lagos, where common regulatory issues that would protect African telecoms consumers were discussed, writes Emma Okonji
As people varies across Africa, based on different culture and beliefs, so does telecoms regulation varies among African countries, based on different regulatory policies and regulatory environment.
The objectives of telecommunications regulation vary from country to country. Governments in most countries continue to see telecommunications as an essential public service, even after telecommunications networks are no longer run by them, but some countries continue to see it the contrary.
But be that as it may, while regulatory measures vary from country to country, the main objectives of telecommunications regulation are often similar with a common goal to protect the interest of the consumers and ensure they have maximum satisfaction from telecoms services rendered by the telecoms operators.
It is for this singular reason of a common goal to protect consumers and to enable them have the best of telecoms service offerings that the NCC, in its wisdom, championed and hosted the first conference of Africa Telecoms Regulators from October 17 to 18, 2013 in Lagos, to harness regulatory policies that will protect telecoms consumers across Africa.
Attended by telecoms regulators from South Africa, Ghana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Cameroun, Liberia, Rwanda, Benin Republic, Malawi, Angola, Sudan, Uganda, among other African countries, the NCC used the conference as a platform to bring together, African telecoms regulators and subscribers, to discuss common regulatory interest that will further enhance telecoms growth across Africa.
Major issues raised at the conference, were multiple taxation imposed by governments in the various African countries, as well as unsolicited promo text messages that hit the subscribers' phones every minute.
Nigeria's Regulatory Challenges
Admitting that there are regulatory challenges from country to country, Executive Commissioner in charge of Stakeholders Management at NCC, Dr. Okechukwu Itanyi, while welcoming African delegates to the conference, said there were a number of regulatory risks that Nigeria encountered from time to time in the process of regulating the telecoms sector, but explained that the mind-set in dealing with the risks, had always been to strike a balance among various and sometimes conflicting interests of affected stakeholders. He listed some of the challenges to include distribution of bandwidth resources, allocation of scarce resources, increasing collaboration with other regulatory agencies, dispute resolution, rapid change in technology, and universal access obligation among others.
The Ghana Experience
Delivering a speech at the African regulators conference, the Director-General of the National Communications Authority of Ghana (NCA), Mr. Paarock Asuman VanPercy, said most people see regulation as dirty, but that it ought not to be so. According to him, "There are a handful of areas of business/industry that because of natural monopoly, properties are subject to different degrees and levels of regulation, in order to protect it.
He described regulation as: ‘A rule or directive made and maintained by an authority.'  Regulation creates, limits, or constrains a right, creates or limits a duty, or allocates a responsibility. Regulation can take many forms: legal restrictions promulgated by a government authority, contractual obligations that bind many parties, VanPercy said.
He insisted that as regulators in the communications industry, protecting consumers and the environment while growing the economy,  is the main priority of regulators, while the second priority is to create jobs and respect the priorities of the people being served.
He further explained that the consumers saw regulations as rules or directives which were put in place to protect them from the shortfall of the telecoms operators in various ways, including from being exploited financially, having continuous access to service and being safe while using communications equipment.
Giving the importance of regulation in the telecoms sector, VanPercy said good regulation promotes competition in the provision of electronic communications networks, services and associated facilities; contribute to the development of the internal market, the interests of consumers; apply objective, transparent, non-discriminatory and proportionate regulatory principles; and promote technological and service neutrality.
Impacts of Multiple Regulations
Speaking from experience on the impacts of multiple regulations, VanPercy cautioned against multiple regulations, which he said was already playing up in Ghana.
He said too much regulations amounted to a “hidden tax,” because the costs of conforming to the regulations were passed on to the consumer in terms of higher costs. he explained that too many regulations might inject uncertainty into the marketplace, making it harder to raise capital and create new businesses.
He also added that too much regulation would result in difficult and more expensive product and services, and may stifle new investments.
Explaining what constitutes too much regulation, VanPercy said: "Analysts and commentators alike suggest that regulation is burden but do those who are bound by it agree? Regulation is not designed to get in the way of doing business. Quite the opposite, it is designed to streamline business processes and make sure that companies are doing all that they can to stay within recommended business practices."
He argued that what needed to be dealt with in regulation is the root cause of what ails the system/industry, insisting that ineffective regulators are more often swamped with data that they cannot process, and try to eliminate variety that they cannot understand. The answer to the question might be better, wiser regulation across Africa, he said.
South Africa's Position
Delivering a paper on: 'Regulation in the Public Interest- a Pan African Perspective', the General Manager, Consumer Affairs of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA),  Mr.  Phosa Mashangoane, described Africa as the world's second-largest and second-most-populous continent, covering six per cent of the earth's total surface area and 20.4 per cent of the total land area. With 1.0 billion people as at 2009, it accounts for about 15 per cent  of the world's human population, and therefore needs better regulatory policies for its telecoms subscribers.
He explained that the crucial elements that drives the regulatory mandate of consumer affairs for the telecoms regulator includes and not limited to Service Quality, Consumer Protection, Universal Service and Access and Universal Service/Access Funds.
On the issue of service quality, Mashangoane said the regulator had fundamental objectives when establishing service quality. He said the regulator must ensure that the general public- that is, consumers are adequately served and that the level of regulatory intervention with respect to service quality, is often dependent on the degree of competitiveness present in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) market.
Consumer Protection
Addressing the key issues of consumer protection, Mashangoane said "In the ICT sector, the development of consumer protection regulations is necessary and should be directed at establishing the operators’ obligations regarding their customers.  Operators’ obligations should include, and not limited to items such as the timely and accurate billing; customer contract policies and procedures; protection of consumer privacy; terms of reference for suspension of service; and procedures necessary to respond to and resolve users’ claims."
In the area of Universal Service and Access, he said:  "Many telecoms regulators are having Universal service and Universal access as a crucial policy, whose principle is that telecom services should be universal and should also be accessible to the public or consumers wherever they are in the country. This is regulated by the universal obligations that the regulators put as terms and conditions of the operating licenses that they issue to the telecoms operators." 
A common mechanism used to help achieve this goal is the creation of universal service/access development funds.  These funds are being used increasingly in competitive markets to supplement the market based policies and address access gaps and market failures in remote and under-served locations, he said.
Speaking on effective regulation, Mashangoane said: "Accountability provides legitimacy and credibility to regulatory activities, promotes public confidence in the regulator, and ensures that the regulatory decisions can withstand the challenges and the public and governmental scrutiny."
He said the accountability of regulators could be monitored by implementing regulatory transparency and reporting regulatory activities to the government. 
One of the main attributes of effective regulation, according to Mashangoane,  is the power to enforce compliance with sector policy, laws, and regulatory decisions, including dispute resolution decisions. 
"The differences in market and regulatory maturity affect the enforcement practices and procedures," he said, but however stated that it is generally agreed that an effective enforcement system is essential in any economy to give effect to those rules necessary for maintaining order in the sector, maintaining and facilitating stability, growth and development of the sector, deterring wrongdoing, protecting consumers, and maximising social and corporate welfare.
NIRA's Voice
President of the Nigeria Internet Registration Association, Mrs. Mary Uduma, in her contribution, referred to regulation as the act of controlling or directing according to rule, but insisted that African regulators must not regulate the technology that is driving communications, since technology is always ahead of legislation.
"While it can take 18 days to develop a software  application it takes  over a year to develop rules  that govern it. She challenges African regulators to be innovative, while carrying out their regulatory duties.
"With the rapid change in technology and disruptive innovations, it would best be to have a light touch or no regulation for technology. However it is very important to regulate the use of technology," Uduma said.
Vision of Consumer Affairs Bureau
The consumer Affairs Bureau (CAB) of the Nigerian Communications Commission is of the view that service quality gaps must be minimised by telecoms operators.
Speaking on the activities of CAB, Director, Policy Competition and Economic Analysis at NCC, Mrs. Lolia Emakpore, said operators must learn to close all gaps, since a gap is the difference, imbalance or disparity which is determined to exist between customers’ perception of firm performance and their prior expectation. Service quality (SQ) perceived by consumers, she said, would therefore be as a result of a comparison of customers’ expectation of services that the organisation should offer versus their perception of the performance delivered by the service organisation.
To avoid service quality gaps, Emakpore said providers must meet and exceed customer expectations, recognise customers’ interests, adapt a primary and strategic focus to reduce the difference between perception and customers' expectation.
She said the role of the regulator is to ensure policy  implementation, provide strategic direction and thrust, develop regulations and guidelines, and enforce laws and regulations.
"As a regulator, the NCC has issued several guidelines and regulations to ensure fair play and protect the consumer," Emakpore said.
ATCON's Perspective
President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria, (ATCON), Mr. Lanre Ajayi,  who was represented at the conference by ATCON Board member, Mr. Elijah Omiyale, spoke on multiple regulations as a challenge to telecoms regulation in Africa.
According to Ajayi, "With the widespread adoption of market-based approaches to the supply of telecommunications services, there is a growing consensus that regulators should not be involved in detailed “management” of the sector. Instead, the regulators’ role is seen to involve maintenance of a regulatory environment conducive to the efficient supply of telecommunications services to the public."
Subscribers' Position
Telecoms subscribers present at the African regulatory conference, kicked against unsolicited text messages on telecoms promo and the indiscriminate digging of roads by telecoms operators for the laying of their fibre optic cables. The subscribers called for immediate end to such promo text messages, which they said were irritating. They also advised telecoms operators to find other means of laying their fibre cables, without destroying already built roads.
Responding, Director, Regulatory Affairs at MTN, Oyetunde Oyeronke, who was part of those that directed one of the sessions of the conference, said the issue of road digging was being addressed. She called on state and federal governments to always make telecoms ducts available when constructing new roads, to enable telecoms operators share infrastructure through the ducts. On the issue of unsolicited promo test messages, Oyeronke said most of the text messages did not come from the operators, insisting that they came from people who were out to defraud subscribers.
The conference came to a conclusion that consumers need stronger voice and collaboration to stay protected always.
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