The story of the chicken and the egg scenario applies to be in play when it comes to telecom network subscribers/customers and the network service providers of Internet broadband, data calls and mobile money.
Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) whose mandate is to protect both consumers and service providers seems stuck in the middle of a rock and hard surface on who should be first priority.
The consumers at the receiving end continuously decry intermittent network quality, dropped call services, poor network access, unwarranted billing, mobile money complaints, poor Internet services and unsolicited texts.
The service providers cum investors at the giving end are decrying network infrastructure vandalism that triggers the poor services, drop in revenues, unreliable power supply and what they describe as ‘unreasonable taxes.’
The result has been back and forth finger pointing from consumers to service providers to UCC.
David Owor, a resident of Wakiso on January 9 this year filed a complaint with UCC’s office of the director for legal service affairs against Airtel Uganda Limited for unwarranted billing.
He says, what astonished him was the nature of “unreasonable” customer reception at UCC.
“An office receives a document and instead of stamping it to acknowledge receipt, the officer in charge just wrote on it indicating it has been received and told me to go back,” said Mr Owor.
After relentless endeavours of writing to UCC, copies of letters that this newspaper has seen where Mr Owor was demanding compensation for his airtime; the matter was brought to the attention of the network service provider.
UCC wrote back to him on April 28, indicating that the respondents (Airtel) established that, on the said dates when he claims his airtime balance was deducted, he made three requests (to Code 6773) for National Social Security Fund updates. Each request cost Shs220.
The letter also indicated that Airtel had established that he had subscribed to the Magic Voice promotion on December 27 which cost him Shs850.
“Following a review of the transaction logs, the Commission believes this matter has been sufficiently resolved,” Eng. Godfrey Mutabazi wrote, adding: “However, in the event that you remain dissatisfied with this resolution you are at liberty to seek legal redress.”
Mr Owor says the communiqué was the last stroke to break his endeavour of pursuing justice. He denied “ever” subscribing to any of the said services but what struck him the most was UCC’s advice to go to court if he feels unsatisfied.
But last month, some customers dragged both UCC and the mainstream players, MTN Uganda, Airtel, Orange and Uganda Telecom, to court over the “irritating” network services.
UCC under principle five of consumers rights, says a consumer “has a right to complain” about the quality of services with regard to the nature of the communication service provided.
“A consumer is expected to utilise or consume services knowing the terms under which the service is being provided. If these terms are not met, a consumer can complain,” UCC’s guidelines read in part.
At a recent consultative meeting between telecom operators and the regulator against the backdrop of such consumer grievances, the UCC executive director, Eng Godfrey Mutabazi, on the sidelines of the meeting said tough penalties for the players are in the offing.
Mr Michael Niyitegeka, a communications consultant, says it is a matter of regulation.
“UCC has to build consumers’ trust and engage the telecoms because these are investors.”
The Uganda Consumer Protection Awareness Association has voiced consumers’ grievances, blaming the regulator for looking on.
Mr Mutabazi added: “Our role is to ensure the interests of the two are represented and problems addressed constructively to modernise the industry.”
Subscribers to wait
But the UCC Act 20ll is silent on any stringent penalties for the telecom flouting on its obligation.
Currently, the regulator is “waiting” for Parliament to approve new guidelines that prescribe tougher measures for any player who delivers hot air. So subscribers have to wait a little longer.
Attempts to reach the ICT minister John Nasasira and his deputy, Nyombi Thembo to comment on the matter were futile by press time as their numbers remained switched off.
UCC’s Quality Service Report released in March this year indicates that all telecommunication service providers fell short of the 95per cent target for successful calls.
At the meeting, UCC and the telecoms instituted a committee to scrutinise the problem on unsolicited messages and report back. Even recent attempts by UCC to tame the telecoms over poor services have wound up in futility.
UCC, recently issued a ban against sending promotional messages to consumers but no penalty for breach was indicated.
As a result, some telecoms keep sending these messages whenever it suits them.
Telecom officials have however argued that “these promotional messages” are a way of raising revenue for operational costs. For unsolicited messages, telecoms castigated consumers for feigning “ignorance” saying some are warranted because in most cases, they sign up on so many forms to “receive notifications” which they turn around to disown.
Some critics have urged UCC to borrow leaf from neighbouring Rwanda, where Rwanda Utility Regulatory Agency (Rura) occasionally issues warnings and penalises telecoms over the poor quality services.