• Sunday, June 23, 2024
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How regulatory conflict frustrates telecom consumers

How regulatory conflict frustrates telecom consumers

Helen Akpofure, a 31-year-old fashion consultant, was speaking with a client when she received a message on her phone. She did not open it immediately but waited until the meeting with the client ended. When she opened it to read, it was a message from a network operator showing her internet data had been exhausted. Her heartbeat quickened instantly.

“I just purchased a 25GB data bundle yesterday and it is finishing today, how?” she spoke out loud to no one in particular. She checked her data balance using the *312# code, which confirmed she no longer had data to connect her phone to the internet. It was strange to her because she has never experienced it before and no one close to her had dealt with such issues.

Akpofure said she has reached out to the network to lay a complaint but does not feel they are treating it with the seriousness it deserves. So she is now considering calling the Federal Competition and Consumer Commission (FCCPC) because a friend received prompt action from the commission.

The challenge, however, is from another feedback she received from an industry insider that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has primary responsibility for addressing consumer complaints in the industry. This means there is a high probability that FCCPC may receive her complaints but will not be able to provide any solution for her.

The NCC Act 2003 provides the protection and promotion of the interests of consumers against unfair practices including but not limited to matters relating to tariffs and charges for and the availability and quality of communications services, equipment and facilities.

The FCCPC, through the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act, is also saddled with the responsibility of protecting and promoting the interests and welfare of consumers by providing them with a variety of quality products at competitive prices.

The Act even extends FCCPC’s powers beyond the consumers. The commission can exercise authority over a body corporate or agency of the government of the federation or a body corporate or agency of a subdivision of the federation if the body corporate or agency engages in commercial activities.

While there is no open conflict between the NCC and the FCCPC, experts have said this is mainly because the consumer protection commission seems not to have the buy-in of the telecom regulator in these matters. Subscribers like Akpofure would often go on to complain to the FCCPC but the commission would refer to the NCC to address the matter, creating occasions for frustrations for consumers.

“It is a pity that FCCPC, a federal agency set up to resolve issues, is terribly disappointing. For nearly a year, I petitioned FCCPC against a telecom giant. They did nothing up till now,” Malachi Uzendu, a subscriber, said.

Funmi Charles-Ugboma, another subscriber who has experienced non-resolution of complaints, said she bought a new line from one of the operators for her mother. The line was duly registered and recharged with N1,000 the same day. She recharged the line again with N5,000 weeks later. They both noticed the line was no longer rechargeable after the N5,000 had been debited. She called the network customer care line, only to be told that there was no N5,000 recharge on the line, and it was yet to be registered.

The FCCPC Act has anticipated occasions for conflict and recommended a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). Section 105 of the Act requires sector regulators like the NCC to negotiate efficient procedures for the management of areas of concurrent jurisdiction.

“This is apparently designed to minimise the potential for disruption. Such agreements must however ‘preserve the coordinating and leadership role of the FCCPC in such matters’. Where negotiations are inconclusive, the matter will be referred to the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice. Also, Section 10 permits the FCCPC to issue ‘compliance notices’ to regulated organisations, (i.e. licences of the NCC) after consulting with the sector regulator, in this case, the NCC,” said Rotimi Akapo, partner and head, telecommunications, media and technology practice group, Advocaat Law Practice.

The two commissions are yet to meet with industry operators to harmonise MoUs with other regulators, said an industry operator who wanted to remain anonymous to speak freely. Telecom complaints sometimes also extend to the financial sector where the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is the regulator of first instance. For example, a subscriber receives debit alerts for bulk SMS on cumulative transactions within a specific period.

How an MoU would have helped subscribers like Akpofure and Uzendu who may want to complain to the FCCPC is that the commission, acting like an oversight entity, will engage with the NCC, which has the primary responsibility. The FCCPC will get responses from the NCC, which will also respond to the subscriber. This reduces the possibility of a double reporting line. The FCCPC can also receive escalations directly if the matter is not resolved from the first response and requires more investigations. The commission would need to verify if such issues were first reported to the primary responsible agency. If not, direct the escalating entity to first report to that agency and if not satisfied, then it can be escalated.

Reuben Muoka, director of public affairs, at the NCC, insists there is no conflict between the telecom regulator and the FCCPC.

“We collaborate very well with FCCPC. If we have issues on anything related, we will resolve it amicably,” Muoka said.

Being the regulator of the first instance, the NCC expects compliance with the relevant regulations and guidelines with respect to consumer protection and competition issues. It is considered unwise or even reckless for any NCC licensee not to comply with their obligations under these regulations and other legal instruments.

The reality is however different for subscribers. The FCCPC in 2021 said complaints from the telecom industry were among the highest across sectors. In May 2023, Adeolu Akande, chairman, board of commissioners, at the NCC, said the commission was overwhelmed with frequent complaints from telecom consumers on the depletion of internet data and other related issues. The commission has since embarked on sensitisation of subscribers on ways to reduce the depletion of their data. The commission also claims a resolution rate of 98 percent.

Part of the challenge, however, is most telecom complaints do not directly come to the commission. According to experts, most subscribers would directly contact the network and if their complaint is not resolved, they are more likely to go to the FCCPC.

Read also: We are engaging Starlink to reduce service costs – NCC

Experts say there is nothing stopping the FCCPC from taking over the consumer protection obligations from the NCC.

“It is also important to point out that the wordings of section 17(a) (b), & (e) of the Act appears to provide that the FCCPC can take over the enforcement of the Nigeria Communications Act and NCC’s regulations or guidelines with respect to competition and consumer protection. The FCCPC can therefore demand compliance by NCC licensees of the obligations imposed by the NCC regulations and guidelines,” Akapo said.

This is why an MoU is the most preferable way to address possible conflicts if negotiated within the context of regulatory equality and recognises the specialisation of the industry regulator.

“An example of how the potential conflicts between both regulators can be resolved is presented in the “Memorandum of Agreement” signed in 2019 between the Competition Commission of South Africa and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa to address areas of concurrent jurisdiction. This took place within the context of regulatory equality and offers a best practice model which can be adopted by the FCCPC and the NCC,” Akapo said.