Protecting Telecoms Consumers’ Rights

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Emma Okonji writes on the recent celebration of the World Consumer Rights Day

Last week, Nigeria joined the rest of the world to commemorate the World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD), which is held globally every March 15. On that day, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) highlighted the roles of the telecoms consumers and the commitment of the telecoms industry regulator, to protect the rights of telecoms consumers.

As at January 2021, the total number of active telecoms subscribers was 200 million with a teledensity of 104.89 per cent, contributing 14.3 per cent to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP), which represented N2.3 trillion growth as at the second quarter of 2020.

Based on the statistics, which is growing by the day, NCC had in the past, declared 2017 as the year of telecoms consumers in Nigeria, and has continued to celebrate and protect the rights of consumers since then.

Joining the world to celebrate this year’s World Consumer Rights Day, with the Theme: ‘Tackle Plastic Pollution’, NCC assured telecoms subscribers in Nigeria of its plan to improve environmental management system of operators in the telecom industry, and reduce greenhouse emissions as well as enhance sustainable development efforts, through appropriate regulations on plastic waste.

World Consumer Rights Day

World Consumer Rights Day was inspired by the 35th United States(US) President, John F. Kennedy, who sent a special message to the US Congress on 15th March 1962, in which he formally addressed the issue of consumer rights. He was the first world leader to do so. The consumer movement first marked that date in 1983 and now uses the day every year to mobilise action on important issues and campaigns.

World Consumer Rights Day is an annual international event that signifies celebration and solidarity in the international consumer movement, demanding that, consumer rights are to be respected and protected. The event also gives a chance to protest against the market abuses and social injustices which undermine those rights.

Each year, World Consumer Rights Day adopts a theme to highlight. This year’s theme ‘Tackle Plastic Pollution’, is designed to address the effect of plastic waste and pollution, since various ecosystems suffer from single-use plastics as these continue to fill the oceans and cause harm to aquatic creatures.

Plastic is a highly useful material in our everyday lives, but our consumption and production of plastics, especially single-use plastic, have become unsustainable. However, there is not a single solution to tackling plastic pollution, so the world created several measures to address plastic waste management, in order to celebrate this year’s World Consumer Rights Day.

Consumer rights in Nigeria

In line with global concerns for consumer rights, as captured in the 2021 World Consumer Rights Day celebration, the NCC said it would continue to come up with regulatory measures that would address the rights of the telecoms consumer in Nigeria.

In his address, its Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said consumer satisfaction remained a central organising principle of NCC’s regulatory activities.

According to him, the conference was conceived to highlight NCC’s commitment to protecting the telecom consumers and to highlight the regulatory role of NCC with respect to protecting the rights of the telecoms consumers and to connect it with the global significance of the World Consumer Rights Day celebration.

“The consumer is king and we put the consumer first in all that we do, hence the Commission declared 2017 as Year of the Telecom Consumer, in recognition of the central place the consumer occupies in the telecoms ecosystem and in the emergent digital economy,” Danbatta said.

Speaking on the theme for the 2021 World Consumer Rights Day, ‘Tackling Plastic Pollution’, Danbatta said the activities and actions slated for this year’s commemoration, were to raise awareness and engage state and non-state actors on the global plastic pollution crisis, adding that this is coming three years after the NCC drafted the Nigerian Communications Industry E-Waste Regulations in 2018.

He said the objective of the regulation was to manage e-waste; promote reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery; improve environmental management system of operators in the telecom industry; and reduce greenhouse emissions as well as enhance sustainable development efforts.

According to Danbatta, while the NCC would be concluding the processes to issue the regulation on electronic waste (e-Waste), it would also be mindful of the fact that many ICT and telecom devices have plastic components, whose waste materials could worsen plastic pollution.

“NCC reckons that improper disposal of such disused ICT-plastic embedded products have grave implication on public health, and especially in achieving Goals 11, 12 and 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2030.

“These goals speak to the imperative of adhering to practices that enhance Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production; as well as Climate Action respectively,” Danbatta said.

The commission, according to him, worried by the recurrent cycle of fraudulent deployment of fake and substandard mobile devices – usually made of iron and plastic components, collaborated with the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) and other relevant government agencies to inaugurate a committee to implement Mobile Devices Management Systems (DMS).

He said the initiative was designed as a Public-Private Partnership (PPP), aimed at combating the proliferation of fake, counterfeit, substandard and cloned communication devices in the telecommunications industry, adding that the expected result of the initiative is that, only genuine materials malleable to enduring usage are available for consumer use.

The Nigerian Communications Act 2003, enjoins the commission to protect the interest of the consumers, which the commission has done through subsidiary legislations, guidelines and directions that proactively address consumer concerns and stipulate responsibilities of all stakeholders.

Danbatta said NCC had made declarations to curtail excesses of some operators and to expand the frontiers of freedom for the consumers.

According to him, having a credible subscriber database would help in tracing a SIM card to the real owner in case of any criminal investigation.

The commission has issued a number of directives to service providers in order to ensure consumers are not shortchanged by telecom service providers. Some of the directives include: Direction on Do-Not-Disturb; Direction on Data Roll-Over; Direction on Automatic Renewal of Data Services, and Direction on Forceful Subscription to Data Services and Value-Added Services.

The Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management at NCC, Mr. Adeleke Adewolu, said NCC would always take consumer information and education very seriously. Just recently, it approved the re-structuring of our legacy consumer outreach and engagement programmes, he explained.

These modifications were made to increase our reach to telecom consumers wherever they are while also observing COVID-19 protocols.

Some of the new information and education programmes include:Telecom Town Halls on Radio, a phone-in dialogic programme to be hosted via radio stations across the country where consumers at the grassroots level will be engaged in their own local language; among others.

Telecoms Consumer Parliament

Citing the telecoms consumer parliament series being organised by the NCC to address consumers’ industry complaints, the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, said the Telecom Consumer Parliament programme, had remained one of the many avenues, through which NCC had resolved several complaints of the telecoms consumers, as they relate to telecoms service offerings. He said such programme should never be allowed to be consumed by other activities of the commission.

Responding to questions around the consumer parliament series of programmes, Danbatta said: “The telecoms consumer parliament programme, which is our flagship programme for the telecoms consumer, is still up and running. Similarly, other Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials like digital banners and factsheets in bookmarks format, have been remodeled in a way that deliver lasting value to the consumers.”

The Commission has also reviewed the Consumer Complaint categories and Service Level Agreement (CC/SLA). The CC/SLA provides complaints categories, the timelines for resolving complaints and prescribes penalties for defaulting operators. This has ensured improvements in consumer compliant management process by the operators, according to NCC.