Protecting Africa’s ICT Consumers in a fast changing market

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Africa’s regulators are increasingly moving to assert their role as the protector of consumer interests in the ICT space. This week the Commissioner responsible for Consumer Affairs told a meeting held by the Liberian Consumers Action Network that it had established a consumer help desk. But if the landscape for ICT consumers is getting more complicated then the responsibilities of companies within the sector is also becoming more demanding.

The Chairperson of the Liberia Telecommunications Authority, Angelique Weeks said last week that the LTA will remain resolute in seeking the interest of telephone subscribers in the country, noting that subscribers are the lifeblood of the telecommunications sector and therefore should be treated with the utmost dignity.

Speaking at a one-day interactive dialogue organized by the Liberian Consumers Action Network to critique the Telecom Act of 2007 as it relates to the protection of telephone subscribers, Chairperson Weeks noted that the LTA has a statutory responsibility to ensure that customers' interest are protected particularly as it relates to value for money; quality of service; accurate and non-deceptive or misleading information and proven health implications in the usage of telecommunications products and other services, according to a report in The Informer.

In a key passage of her speech, she said, "the LTA has set aside appropriate resources to support key activities relating to consumer protection and education including the implementation of an on-going outreach program for consumer education and information sharing; the evolution of a consumer network association in the country and the establishment of consumer parliaments which will afford consumers and service providers to meet periodically to deliberate on issues of mutual concern".

Also speaking at the forum, Commissioner Lamini A. Waritay who has oversight responsibility for Public, Consumer and Legal Affairs consumers should take advantage of the newly established Consumer Help Desk at the LTA by seeking redress to unresolved problems with their service providers. He said the LTA will continue to monitor complaint handling procedures by service providers to ensure that consumers get the best value for their money.

Three incidents this week show how consumer education will have to be a vital component of the regulator’s (and operators’) work:

* In neighbouring Sierra Leone, SLPP Presidential hopeful Dr. Francis Kaikai had his hotmail address hacked and from it a scammer sent out a bogus e-mail. It said that while in Malaysia he had been robbed and could they send him US$2,500 by Western Union to help sort things out. Several of his friends and contacts fell for the con trick and sent money. Now it is easy to be cynical and say “more fool them” but con tricks of this kind play upon people’s natural sense of generosity, by contrast with the more greed motivated ones that make up the majority of this kind of traffic. He is quoted rather plaintively saying he does not know how they got his account password. But it’s an everyday problem that could happen to anyone in Africa.

* Consider the tricky issue of how broadband services are described. In the early days of African broadband, there were providers describing a 64 kbps download link as broadband. Things have come a long way since then but the problem persists. This week MTN South Africa announced with much hoopla an uncapped service in a country that has made “slicing and dicing” consumer broadband access a speciality. The new service comes in two sizes - Uncapped Lite and Uncapped Pro – which are on 24 month contracts. Uncapped? Well, not exactly. After you’ve had your bandwidth allocation you’re bumped down to a 128 kbps download link: Lite’s Fair Use limit is 3GB and Pro’s is 10GB.

* At the ItWeb Security Summit this week, Independent Security Evaluators’ Dr Charlie Miller pointed out how easy it was to attach a phone using SMS and how vulnerable the new smartphones arriving in Africa are to hacking. Indeed because of GPS functionality on smartphones, the hacker would be able to track where the owner was. Now you might say smartphones are only for the very rich but in 2-3 years time 5-10% of mobile subscribers in many African countries will own a smartphone and people like poor Dr Kaikai in the first example above will find themselves open to hacking in whole new ways.

All the above is as nothing alongside the large volume of often complicated tactical marketing offers made to Africa’s mobile consumers. To rephrase the immortal line from The Godfather movie, it’s a case of “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t understand.” At Balancing Act we spend more time than most consumers analysing telecoms prices and they are not always clear to us.

So what should a smart mobile operator or ISP do? Someone in the market has to start offering clear, straightforward descriptions of services and prices combined with an intelligent and educative relationship with their customers. It would almost certainly make that operator stand out in a crowded market. Any takers?