Most common complaints about phone service are price, quality and access, says new report

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The three main areas of complaints from phone consumers are high prices, quality of service and getting access to the service, according to the authors of a new report published by Balancing Act this month.

The report - “Assessing consumer activity in the telecom and Internet sectors in Africa” – is based on a survey of 30 countries in Africa and includes three detailed case studies of Kenya, Senegal and South Africa. It looks at how consumer complaints are treated and what processes are in place to deal with them. It focuses on the central role of the regulator in this field and looks at how African regulators fulfil the consumer part of their mandate through interacting with consumer organisations.

The report concludes:”Because of the speed of growth of Africa’s communications markets, it is hardly surprising that investment has sometimes lagged behind demand. As a result of this and other factors, quality of service (in both the telecoms and Internet sectors) has not always been what it should be. But again as with price, the time is now right for policy-makers, regulators and consumer organisations to focus on getting improvements in quality of service”. It also focuses on the need to continue to lower prices and extend access to new users through further technology innovation.

One of the key organisations set up to protect the consumer interest in this area has been the regulator. However, they have nearly all been set up with the double-headed mandate of creating a level-playing field in the industry as well as looking after the consumer interest. As most regulators are relatively recent creations, it is hardly surprising that most have concentrated their efforts on getting the restructuring of the industry right and have only recently begun to consider the interests of the consumer.

According to one of the report’s author’s Russell Southwood:”Of all the services on offer, mobiles are the most widely used by African consumers. In the initial growth phase of these markets, mobile operators set new standards for availability, pricing and service. But in many African countries, there are very low levels of price competition and mobile charges are considerably higher than fixed line services. Responsiveness to consumer complaints about issues like network congestion varies considerably from country to country: some countries have begun to tackle these kinds of issues whereas in others, there are no effective processes in place to deal with complaints.”

According to Southwood:” The mobile operators now control the majority of the voice market by value and run the danger of themselves becoming the new incumbents: they are large operators with relatively low levels of price competition and some appear unwilling to be judged on their service performance. With notable exceptions, most operators were not very forthcoming about the exact number of complaints they receive.”

The report highlights the approach adopted by the Indian regulator TRAI that publishes quarterly information on service levels from almost all operators and puts this information on its web site. This enables Indian consumers to see whether the operators are meeting the service standards set by the regulator across a range of benchmarks.

Both regulators and operators acknowledge that the interests of the African consumer are central to what they do but not all of them have yet found a way of converting this commitment into practical action. The most striking examples of responsiveness to consumers are two of Africa’s larger regulators, the Nigerian Communications Commission and Egypt’s National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority.

Very few regulators have any information about what the consumers for whose interests they are responsible think. Exceptions include Botswana’s Telecommunications Authority that has carried out a survey to see what its consumers think of the telephone and Internet services on offer.

There have been lively independent consumer campaigns in a number of African countries tackling the three key complaint areas. Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa all have lively consumer organisations that have addressed these issues but these are not yet taken as seriously by regulators as they might be.

However, the position is almost certainly changing and a number of regulators (including those in Zambia and Malawi) are forming partnerships to address consumers and are using media like radio and television that will allow them to reach those who have limited literacy. As most acknowledge that African consumers are largely unaware of their rights, creating awareness through education is an important role that the regulator needs to perform.

After a presentation of the draft report in March 2006, The Association of Regulators of Information and Communications for Eastern and Southern Africa (ARICEA) adopted a motion that stated that regulator-members:

• should facilitate the establishment of a consumer body;

• establish mechanisms to protect and safeguard consumers interests;

• take necessary steps to educate consumers on their rights and obligations.