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The telecoms of half truths and non-transparency

Thu, 25 Nov 2010 Source: Dowuona, Samuel

24.11.10

Samuel Dowuona

The Minister of Communications, Haruna Iddrisu recently stated on public television that he had asked the National Communications Authority (NCA) to probe the ‘text and win’ promotions and the current price war in the telecom industry.

Some of the telecom operators brushed the minister’s public pronouncement aside as ‘a statement made in passing’, obviously because it threatens their non-transparency.

The minister later gave a formal public warning to telecom operators that they risk being sanctioned if their ‘text and win’ promotions are found to be in violation of the gaming laws of the country.

Months ahead of these warnings, the minister had championed what is probably the one project that the telecom operators dreaded most – international call verification, to check fraud in the industry and generate more revenue for the state.

The telecom operators had resisted call verification because they allegedly connived with some fraudsters to do call by-pass and make international calls appear as local calls, so that the tax component meant for the state is less.

Since call verification started in June this year, government has raked in more than $14 million in taxes from in-bound international calls; a clear indication that there was massive fraud and the minister is right.

But till date some of the operators are still posing challenges to the call verification process.

Mr. Iddrisu has also indicated that mobile number portability (MNP) will start early next year, and that scares some operators because it gives the consumer freedom and power to punish poor network service.

All the undertakings of the minister are obviously in the public interest, so why are the telecom operators against them?

At the just ended Financial Times (FT) World Telecom Conference, CEO of British telecom industry regulator, Ofcom, Ed Richards said regulation is about ensuring transparency and freedom for consumers.

He said ‘the consumer must know how much he is spending, and what he is being denied of – regulation must ensure that the consumer is free to switch networks easily without being sabotaged by the operator.’

It is obvious that the minister’s moves are what telecom regulation is all about, ensuring transparency and freedom of choice for consumers, and yet the telecom operators prefer a situation where they can continue to take consumers and the state for a ride.

With subtle taglines like ‘power to you’, ‘feel free’ ‘express yourself’ and ‘everywhere you go’, telecom operators create the impression that they uphold the values of transparency and freedom for consumer, but a closer look at their activities, attitudes and postures largely reveal the deliberate and calculated use of half truths and secrecy to mislead subscribers.

The reality of the use of half truths by telecom operators to mislead consumers hit me hard whiles in UK recently; I bought a Talkmobile SIM Card at Carphone Shop and had to buy £15 worth of credit because the sales person told me I would gain 100 minutes free to make international calls.

Who does not like free gifts? I took the offer, so after the card was activated I called my wife in Ghana and we talked for 25 minutes and my credit run out. I was surprised because based on what the sales person said, my £15 credit was supposed to have remained intact and I was supposed to have been left with 75 free minutes for international calls.

The following day I returned to the shop and made a complaint, only to be told that the 100 minutes free credit was meant for calls to particular countries and Ghana was not included. But that was not what I was told initially, I was told 100 minutes to make ‘international calls for free’.

That was when I realized that telecom operators love to use half truths to lure us to patronize their products, services and promotions; and we only face the harsh truth, when we have already been sold.

To say one has 100 minutes to make free international calls is not entirely false, but it is also not the whole truth. They purposely hide the other truth, to mislead us into making uninformed choices.

A lot of half truths are going on in the telecom sector in this country, and efforts to get the operators to be transparent and straight forward with consumers is being met with fierce resistance.

When Vodafone introduced their 8 Ghana pesewas per minute offer, they did not state in their initial announcement that it was actually an optional price plan.

Vodafone has ‘Talk and Talk’ promotion, which has silently been converted into an alternative price plan without prior notice to the public.

The situation now is that, subscribers who opt for the 8Gp per minute lose out on free credits on ‘Talk and Talk’, and those on ‘talk and talk’ keep paying 14Gp per minute.

That is why Vodafone insisted that subscribers registered for the 8Gp per minute, so they know who is getting off the ‘Talk and Talk’ and who is not.

Vodafone did not tell a complete lie, but they did not also tell us the whole truth from the onset.

Airtel Ghana was one of the first operators to reduce their call rates to 8Gp per minute, even though their group CEO has been telling the world that they will not engage in price wars in Africa. What double standards?

When MTN announced their three price plans – ‘so cool’, ‘so easy’ and ‘talk a lot’, they did not make it clear that opting for any of the three price plans meant getting off MTN Zone.

As a matter of fact, MTN Zone is numbered one on the MTN price plan option list, which can be obtained by dialing short code 135. But that was not sufficiently clear from the onset because as an MTN official put it “we did not want to confuse the subscribers.”

Secondly, when MTN did their premium-rate ‘90 Cars in 90 Days’ promotion, they kept sending a particular message that read “Confidential info! Incidentally your name has been short-listed to win MTN’s Hyundai i10 tonight and ix35 tomorrow! Simply text WIN to 2010! 75Gp/SMS.”

MTN told subscribers that in order to participate one must text WIN to 2010, but even those who did not opt to participate received messages saying their names have been short-listed to win; an obvious half truth and misleading message to get people to enlist at the whopping cost of 75Gp per text message even before getting short-listed.

How can the public then guarantee that even those who originally texted WIN to 2010 to enlist in the promotion, were actually enlisted and really shortlisted to win?

TIGO was probably the worst offender in the use of misleading messages to lure people to text at the cost of 50Gp per text message in their promotions.

My mother in-law got several text messages from TIGO reading, “Congratulations, you have won cash. Just send TIGO to 3003 to claim your prize,” and other similar messages.

These messages, which clearly stated “you have won cash”, made my 64 year-old mother in-law board ‘tro-tro’ from La, all the way to TIGO heard office, to claim her prize, which was non-existent, because the message was intend to mislead and lure people like her to send more text messages and lose more money.

Every telecom promotion comes with loads of terms and conditions, which are entirely designed to protect the operators and their partners from any possible legal actions by subscribers in respect of the promotions.

Whereas they use radio, television and newspapers widely to promote their ‘text and win’ promotions, they publish the terms and conditions on their websites, so that subscribers will not get the needed information to make informed decisions whether to participate or not.

But that is cunning, because the regulator cannot hold them for not publishing the terms and conditions since it is on their websites, even if very few subscribers read them.

I had the opportunity of participating in the Telecom World Africa conference in Cape Town last year. An official from TIGO, Ghana was one of the speakers - I interviewed other speakers from other countries and I thought since this official was from Ghana, her presentation would probably be more relevant to Ghanaians.

I approached her to interview her and she turned down my request, saying the information she delivered at the conference was not meant for Ghanaian public consumption.

This was information about TIGO’s performance and she had shared it with conference participants, who included journalists from other countries, but she did not think Ghanaians were qualified enough to consume such information, even though the information was about us.

She even dared to brand Ghanaians are gullible and having the tendency to misconstrue such information for something else.

Such is the posture of telecom operators in Ghana when it comes to giving information to subscribers, whether directly or through the media. They are quick to dole out promotional information about their products, services, CSR, investments and promotions because those make them look good on the telecom catwalk.

But they are not ready to tell the public about average revenue per user (ARPU), which is information that is commonly put out in the public within the telecom sector around the world, except in Africa.

Telecom operators in Ghana think making the public know how much they are making from each subscriber means exposing their earnings, and becoming too transparent and vulnerable.

The CEO of one telecom operators made a presentation at a major investment conference in Ghana, during which he stated the ARPU of the entire Ghanaian telecom sector was $5.00 a month.

The PR department of that operator forwarded a copy of the presentation to me to do a news article. I went back to them to ask for their own ARPU, and the reply was, I should forget about doing the story entirely because they were no more interested.

This is an operator who particularly accuses journalists of not asking the hard questions, and when they got the opportunity to answer one hard question, they just chickened out.

I later got the information from other sources and wrote an award winning article, because that information was in the public interest.

The regulator, NCA has also not done the public any good in that direction, because they have aided the operators to keep the ARPU away from the public, to the extent that journalists, like myself, who manage to get that information from highly placed sources, are described by some telecom officials as “notorious”, “unprofessional” and “controversial”. But that is for another day.

As far as the telecom operators are concerned, we are to remain ignorant about certain aspects of their business because that way, they get to play around with us, quote their own ARPU, subscriber base, market share, revenue and other information without any verification by the NCA and the public.

This is why they resisted the international call monitoring system proposed by the current Minister of Communications, because they are used to keeping their business enshrined in half truths and secrecy so they can do us in without we knowing.

But let it be known that the Minister of Communications has strongly stated that domestic and international call monitoring is non-negotiable, and that should inform the telecom operators that times are changing and they need to run on simple ethical rules of transparency, integrity and honesty to survive and progress.

The theme for the FT World Telecom Conference this year was “Smart Moves for Changing Times”; I submit to the telecom operators in Ghana that one of the smartest moves they can make in these changing times is to be transparent, eschew the telecoms of half-truths and be committed to giving their subscribers the flexibility of choice.

ENDS

Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel