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NCA must wake up

Wed, 7 Sep 2011 Source: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku

Days ago, the Network of Communications Reporters (NCR), a group of journalists who have specialized in telecoms and ICT reporting, called on the National Communications Authority (NCA) to sit up.

The call was in respect of the NCA updating its website, publishing authentic Mobile Number Portability (MNP) figures and also ensuring expansion in fixed line operations.

The NCR could not have been more right in their call, because the NCA needs to be up and doing on more than just those three areas.

For years Ghana seem to have had nothing more than an emerging telecoms regulator, which is, as of today, yet to get the full grips of what it takes to regulate such a major, dynamic and fast growing industry.

The current Minister of Communication, from the onset of his appointment stated that Ghana needed a stronger telecoms regulator. At the time, the regulator was not only weak, but also seemingly confused about its mandate and probably much more of an ally of some players in the telecom industry than it sought the interest of subscribers as per the law that established it.

Proof of that was this writer and a colleague journalist had a rare privilege of engaging a previous Director-General of the NCA in a chat somewhere outside this country, and in that chat the D-G betrayed himself as an ally of one player by explaining why it was necessary to protect a dominant player in the interest of the nation.

That D-G kicked against a number of initiatives, including Mobile Number Portability, which are intended to give the subscriber the power of choice; and he stated categorically that there was no need implementing such systems which have a potential of neutralizing the dominance of that player because of that player’s investment and spread across country.

No wonder that player always referred journalists to the NCA, at the time, to seek answers on MNP, knowing very well what the NCA Boss’ position was. Indeed when this writer first sent a questionnaire to the NCA about MNP, the responses were very clear – that “MNP is cumbersome and expensive for the operators”, and would not yield results worth the expenses.

It was strange how a regulator mandated by law to seek the interest of the subscriber could rubbish a system that would give power to the subscriber with such mean and pessimistic words.

That obviously biased D-G has since been changed and a whole lot has changed at the NCA since, but there still remain a lot to be desired as far as the NCA’s vigilance and customer service are concerned.

SUBSCRIBER NUMBERS

In a previous article, this writer did point out that the NCA had no means of auditing and verifying subscriber figures that the individual operators present to it on quarterly (90-days) basis. The NCA claimed it had an auditing system, but the telcos can confirm that there has never been a time when NCA had ever audited any figures and challenged them; they only publish what the operators present, and since there is no uniform system in determining those figures, there is no way to prove their reliability.

Proof of the NCA’s failure to verify the figures was the blunder it committed by publishing a wrong set of figures from Tigo on its website last June, which placed Tigo behind Vodafone; and then later on Tigo brought in another set of figures and the NCA quickly replaced the previous ones and Tigo went ahead of Vodafone.

The was the height of embarrassment and a clear display of the NCA’s lack of commitment to verifying figures; it would not be surprising that tomorrow if another network decides to over bloat its subscriber levels, NCA would publish without doing any verification. Indeed there have been allegations of some operators engaging in that and the NCA just looks on because more subscribers translate into more money for the NCA.

CUSTOMER SERVICE

Customer service is definitely not one of the strengths of the NCA; until recently, there was virtually no place on the scheme of things at the NCA for direct interaction with consumers to find out their challenges and factor them in to regulatory measures and decisions. The NCA was pre-occupied with issuing licenses and monitoring the operators for revenue, and paying no attention to consumer needs and complaints.

In other jurisdictions, the regulator actually does day to day monitoring of the number of complaints lodged with the individual service providers and they use that information to determine which operator is actually fulfilling its licensing mandate of providing quality service. But in Ghana there is a regulator that is yet to show it has the consumer at heart and concerned about making consumer issues a factor in rating operators’ performance.

As the NCR said, the NCA’s website, where consumers could go to and get information about the industry, is hardly updated. It is almost always behind time, like almost everything that has government in it.

OPERATOR OFFERINGS

Now competition in the industry has become very keen and the operators are throwing all kinds of offers out there and making all kinds of wild and untrue claims about their offers, and the regulator is sitting by and watching as if it does not even exist.

Any operator could just wake up and decide today “we are going to say we have a service that can make customer speak directly with God on phone and hear God audible voice via phone” and they would say it and nobody would ask them questions. When journalists ask the hard questions, they are described as notorious.

Recently all the operators have been claiming to have the best value in terms of voice call tariffs and data download rates. MTN claims to have the lowest price for internet download at the highest speed, Vodafone claims to have the highest internet speed in Africa at their cafes, and Tigo also says its bundles have the lowest internet rate. These are three top operators, all claiming the same things and the regulator is looking on and waiting for journalists to ask questions and be accused of being notorious.

These are relative claims, and should easily be verifiable. The regulator can put the minds of consumers to rest over all these wild claims by publishing research-based results on these and calling the operators to order. But no, that is not the kind of regulator we have in Ghana. This country has had to settle for a regulator that allows operators to exercise bragging powers they do not have, even to the point of trading in untruths and half-truths.

PRICING REGULATION

The rules are clear, that before an operator increases the price of any service or product, they are supposed to inform their customers. But some operators have been increasing data service rates recently without prior notice to their customers, and the regulator is sitting by, not having any monitoring system, but waiting for consumers to walk to them and complain. So if consumers do not complain, that illegality just passes and is allowed to go on.

The NCA as regulator is great idea, but sometimes one wonders whether the NCA is really what it is supposed to be as per the consumer interest. It was interesting how the NCA became vocal all of a sudden over SIM card registration because that had to do with pushing the consumer out of his comfort zone to go register his number or lose it. If the NCA could do same with taking on service providers to live up to their licensing mandate, and to be truthful and factual in their promotions, offering and reports, it would do this country a whole lot of good.

It is important to put on record, however that lately, some positive things have begun to happen at the NCA, such as appointing a Deputy Director for Communications (Consumer and Corporate Affair, establishing a consumer desk, appointing an MNP Consultant and other few things that show the NCA is gradually moving into the corner of the consumer.

A little more push, commitment and action, and the NCA will be counted among the class of the great regulators in the saturated and developed telecom markets around the world.

Feature by: Samuel Nii Narku Dowuona

Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku