By Chidiebere Nwobodo Chidiebere
According to Wikipedia, the consumer is the person who pays to consume goods and services produced. As an individual, he plays a vital role in the economic system of any nation.
The consumer also constitutes a strategic part of the distribution chain in the overall economy. He is the end of production cum distribution network. There cannot be producers or service providers without him. Every buoyant economy rises and falls on the actions and reactions of the consumer.
Narrowing it down to the telecommunications sector, especially as it affects Nigeria, consumption is one of the major factors propelling the growth of the telecommunications industry. Nigerian subscribers, numbering about 154 million, dominate the African telecommunications landscape. They provide the revenue that Mobile Network Operators need to keep moving. Yet, they do not get the best satisfaction when it comes to services. In 2015, Nigerian telecom subscribers coughed out a whopping sum of $5.6bn, which was spent on telecommunications services alone. In 2016, it was increased by another $1bn, thereby making it a total of $6.6bn.
After a long period of neglect and exploitation, finally the subscribers have got the attention of the telecommunications regulatory agency-the Nigerian Communications Commission. On March 15, 2017, the Commission historically declared 2017 as a year set aside to focus on the warfare of Nigerian subscribers. The essence of the declaration is to highlight the plight of the consumers, as regards poor quality of services, being rendered to them by the MNOs and proffer solutions to them. Unsolicited messages, illegal deductions from consumers’ credit, infuriating menace of robotic calls, poor quality of service, charges for unrequested services like caller tunes, call drops, unfriendly internet data plan packages, and so on; have become excruciating pains cum challenges on the part of subscribers.
The declaration will go a long way to restore the confidence of telecom subscribers in the ability of the Commission to protect its rights and privileges, which is in line with the mandate of the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC.
Some of the MNOs, no doubt, have defaulted on their primary responsibility, which is to provide qualitative telecommunications services to consumers. The poor network coverage has remained a recurring decimal in the industry. Even when the NCC has provided a Do-Not-Disturb code to enable consumers control the menace of unsolicited messages, by sending it to 2442, it is yet to abate. Exorbitant charges for services not rendered, or requested, has been a small piece of bone in the throats of many telecom subscribers. A situation in which MNOs impose unsolicited caller tunes on the consumers and still deduct money from them, as fees for these tunes, leaves much to be desired.
Inadequate telecom infrastructure, especially in the rural areas, has contributed immensely to poor network coverage. Apart from making complaints via the NCC’s designated line of 622, telecom consumers on the street want a system put in place by the NCC that automatically reverses unjustifiable deductions made on their airtime, without having to embark on bureaucratic voyage of reporting to the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC or Complaint Commission. The banking sector model, where Automated Teller Machines immediately reverses unpaid debt alert, should be emulated in the telecommunications sector, as part of regulatory measures put in place to protect subscribers.
Realistically, how many telecom subscribers will start calling the NCC’s complaint line of 622 because their Network Operators short-changed them? How many of them will have the patience to keep dialing 622 anytime a Network Operator cheats them of N20? How many of the telecom consumers are observant or literate enough to know when they have been exploited? What will a subscriber do if, at the end of the month, he has not been able to exhaust his one-month data plan due to poor quality of internet services and the hosting NO insists that he recharges his data plan before the remaining data rolls over? What stops the Network Service Providers from rolling over subscriptions to the next month, especially any period there is epileptic internet service? These are thought provoking questions racing through the minds of many subscribers.
A few weeks ago, the NCC summoned the Mobile Network Operators to a meeting and the riot act was read to them on the importance of improving the quality of service. As much as I will commend the NCC for the bold step, I want to advocate something more self-sustaining than what is obtainable now. The NCC does not have to compel MNOs all the time to maintain quality of service in the industry by imposing fines on them or mandating them to refund certain amount to telecom consumers via airtime. There should be a system that automatically blocks unsolicited messages from reaching the subscriber without him sending codes to designated lines. The proposed electronic system should compensate telecom consumers with airtime, for example, anytime N50 is deducted for unrequested caller tunes. The system should automatically roll over data subscription plan any month that a particular Network Operators falls below 60 per cent performance, as regards provision of internet services.
Chidiebere Nwobodo Chidiebere is a Public Affairs Analyst.