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ICT Consumers Form Lobby Group PDF Print E-mail

Nearly a year ago, two ICT consumers simultaneously received text messages inviting them to the holy land. They could have ignored them, for it is typical to get such promotional messages from service providers, but these were unusual.

They were, of course unsolicited for,  persistent, frequent and irritating.

 

So when eventually a message came through with a provision to unsubscribe, the two promptly did so, but were shocked to be debited Ush 1,000 ($0.5).  You can imagine how much the company gained from all the other consumers who unsubscribed to this annoying message.

“I thought debiting my phone account for an unsolicited message was insolence of the highest order. When I shared it with James Wire, the exact incident had happened to him. So we decided to do something about it,” said Paul Asiimwe of Sipi Law Associates.

That evening the two met for a meeting and on top of their agenda, they decided to take action. First of all, with Uganda Telecom Ltd since the messages were sent on that platform and later with Uganda Communications Commission, the regulator.

But the lady who took the call at Uganda Telecom became defensive which was not helpful at all. There was no action from the regulator.

When they shared their frustration, they decided to act not only in their interests but for the wider ICT consumer community, advocating against poor quality in voice and data services and for accountability from providers.

At about the same time, members of the I-Network mailing list, a discussion platform for ICT4D issues, with 980 members were debating the very issue, unsolicited mail. The discussion went on for a while, but with no clear solution until a lobby group was agreed upon.

With assistance from I-Network, the duo and members from the mailing list formed the Uganda ICT Consumer Protection Association (UICPA). Currently the lobby group is fully registered and is temporarily located at I-Network Kamwokya offices, and on the website www.ictconsumer.or.ug. I-Network is an ICT4D non-governmental organization, supported by the Netherlands based International Institute for Communications Development (IICD).   

“We need to challenge the norms that exist. If we do not stand up for our rights, service providers will continue making money without accountability and providing poor quality services,” said Asiimwe at the launch of UICPA on 20th March at Imperial Royale. With liberalization of the IT sector, and others consumer vulnerability became inevitable but what is unique about it in this particular industry is that technology is evolving very fast therefore, the lobby group has to keep up pace with the changes.
It is therefore relating with other consumer bodies to do so.


“We welcome every initiative to address consumer protection and we shall collaborate with UICPA. This issue is enormous and calls for concerted effort by all stakeholders in the sector,” said Fred Otunnu the director communications and consumers affairs, UCC. UCC is already collaborating with two consumer Associations, Uganda Consumer protection Association (UCPA) and Consumer Education Trust (CONSENT) as well as Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) to promote ICT consumer issues.

How the lobby group will work
UICPA will act as an arbiter, educator, advocate and a proactive independent consumer body as well as a consumer association demanding accountability. Funding of the organization will be from organizations that are interested in the lobby group and other stakeholders. It will be an interim entity with public interest mediation. The lobby group, which is a consumer driven initiative, will ensure that consumers get value for money and will advocate against poor quality services and for regular updates on pricing from the regulator. It will send complaints to UCC and to service providers–help consumers describe their problems- and if no action is taken they will make a follow up. If they fail to act different pressure tactics including exposure in the media will be applied. A monthly or bi-monthly meeting will be held to review matters of grave concern. Consumers will be invited to tell their horror stories at press conferences.

“We want to bring the different players together. Consumers will understand what the suppliers are giving them but service providers will also know that if they give a poor service they can not get away with it,” said James Wire Lughabo, a founder member of UICPA.  Wire said that although the organization is not going to be combatant, the service providers will stop operating with so much aloofness and will understand that ‘quality of service in the ICT sector is a right not a favor’.

But some service providers were of the view that UICPA is combative in their approach. “It is a combative situation that is why no service provider is interested after all the regulations protect them fully,” said Badru Ntege, chairman Uganda ISP Association at the launch of UICPA.

However, UICPA officials who do not think the approach is combative at all said that could be the only language service providers will understand. But it is also normal for such people to seat back and watch what’s going on especially during looming finale fat times. Others blame the regulator and other players in the sector for not ensuring that the consumer gets value for money. 

“Although I am complaining about service providers, I am looking at regulators as well. They are supposed to know what is coming on the market, sanction the providers and not just look on,” said Charles Bwenvu, the director Nile Investment Group International. Initially operating as a lobby virtual team, UICPA will complement UCC and Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS) that are mandated by government to do this work. According to a report from the industry most of the complaints documented by UCC are about inaccurate and incontestable billing, poor quality service, frequency interference, inaccessibility of customer services, unsolicited messages and environmental risks.  UNBS is also tasked with ensuring consumer protection. It has an imports inspection scheme, which tests given products at entry, and ensures quality at source. However, their major challenge is that standards are specification based while complaints from consumers are performance based. In the case of ICT products, standards are for a complete unit of for instance a whole computer not small parts, which are the basis for consumer complaints, said Teopista Agoa Mpora from UNBS.

“The Uganda public does not know how to complain. Most people think they are doomed with what they have. We do not come out as consumers and say no. We are comfortable with what we have which is a wrong approach,” said Mpora. But this can be contested to an extent especially when we look at the low levels of education about products on the market. It is envisaged that by coming together, service providers’ would take the initiative to educate consumers and sellers.

“UICPA is a good initiative that will create checks and balances within the industry. I hope it will enable the service providers to educate the consumers most of whom do not have the capacity to verify services,” said Edward Baliddawa, the chairman ICT committee in Parliament. As a first step of consumer education, consumers should take the responsibility of learning about the products and services they intent to access but also the people selling these products should do the same.  

The sales representatives do not have much knowledge about what they are selling. You walk in there and they can not even educate you about the products, said Joan Kyokutamba from the Uganda Consumer Protection Association “It is our responsibility to learn about what we need and what we want. We need to know what we are buying so that we do not loose money,” said Kyokutamba.

 

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