By: Syeda Rafia Mazhar
The time has changed and having cell phone is no more a luxury. Today, the mobile phone has marked its place in the list of basic commodities. No matter which class you belong to or which age group your are from, you can find one for yourself in the market with a very nominal price. At present, majority of the population living in big cities is enjoying landline facility; all these factors are an obvious indicator of telecom growth in the country.
The last few years have witnessed a tremendous development in telecom sector as the overall teledensity of the country has reached 61.8%. With such a boom in the growth of telecom subscribers, it becomes a challenge for telecom operators as well as the Regulator to assure the provision of quality services to such a huge consumer base and satisfy their needs. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), as Regulator of the sector, guarantees the protection of telecom consumers’ rights by setting strict quality measures for the operators. PTA is making every effort to facilitate the consumers and its recent initiatives are evident to this claim.
Realizing consumers’ interests and their rights, PTA had formed a Consumer Complaint Cell to handle their complaints. Initially this Cell was working in a limited capacity. The escalating consumer base had put the number of complaints on rise and due to the introduction of new services by operators the nature of consumer complaints has also got diversified.
The previous complaint handling mechanism was not effective enough to tackle with such situation. There was an acute need for a new enhanced complaint handling system. The Authority, after analyzing the situation, revamped its Complaint Cell into a dedicated Consumer Protection Directorate (CPD).
CPD comprises of a Complaint Cell which can easily be accessed by consumers through a number of channels including Toll Free Number, telephone, fax, e-mail, PTA’s website, post mail and through person visitation. Furthermore, consumers can also access PTA’s Zonal offices at provincial capitals for early redressal of their complaints. Till now more than 80,000 individual consumer complaints have been received and redressed by PTA.
PTA endeavor on consumer rights does not end here. PTA by joining hands with telecom operators and other stakeholders continued its efforts to protect the rights of telecom consumers. For this purpose it initiated process for formulation of regulations to safeguard telecom consumers. After an extensive consultation on different forums the final outcome was presented in the form of “Consumer Protection Regulations, 2009” in March 2009. Under these regulations, the telecom operators are required to setup a comprehensive mechanism for the rederessal of consumers’ grievances.
What do these Regulations say regarding Service Provision, Interruption and Disconnection
It does improve the confidence level of a consumer on the services of its concerned operator when the operator does inform him/her about any sort of interruption in the service, prior to its occurrence, caused due to any reason like, service enhancement or modification etc. Under the Consumer Protection Regulations 2009 the operators shall keep the consumer informed on any kind of interruption in their service.
Where as in case of unpredicted technical interruption/faults the Regulations states that the operator shall inform the consumer by any possible source like the SMS and Calls etc. This point has been included in the regulation in view of the consumer’s right to know about why the quality of service has not been maintained.
The Operator can not withdraw any services to the consumer, without the approval of the Authority and it shall give thirty (30) days prior notice to the consumer in this regard. In such cases the operator will clearly communicate the reasons for suspension or disconnection of services to the consumer. The point of thirty (30) days prior notice provides an opportunity to the consumer to take necessary measures to avoid any sort of communication problem in form of service suspension or disconnection.
Furthermore under the regulations the operators have been barred from suspending or disconnecting a service to a consumer for which the consumer has paid all the dues, even if the consumer has not done the payment to the operator in relation to some other services. But the operator can suspend or disconnect all connections for individual services to a consumer, which are subscribed by that consumer in his/her own name and the default is not cleared for any one of such connections.
Another significant and highly appreciable clause in the regulations is about the access to the emergency numbers. The Consumer Protection Regulations requires that the operator shall not deny access to emergency numbers to a consumer, even if the service is suspended for any valid reason. With the application of this regulation by the operators the consumer can easily contact the cops or ambulance in case of emergency situation, without any fear that the call will not be connected due to non payment or any other reason.
The authority has further instructed the operators to restore the services to the telecom consumers if they have paid all the dues or have taken all the steps to satisfy the operator on the reason for which the service was suspended or disconnected. As after the payment or fulfillment of the operator’s requirement the consumer has the right to get the services back on priority basis.
Regulations regarding Commercial Practices
In order to protect the consumer from being deceived through the misleading and false advertisements PTA has included few points regarding Commercial Practices in the Consumer Protection Regulations. Under the regulations, PTA has directed all telecom operators to ensure that consumers know the exact costs for all services prior to purchase. Operators are bound to mention clearly the cost of service without any false or misleading information, explicitly disclosing the tariff rates, units of charging, and applicable taxes, etc in their advertisements.
Authority further desired that it should be ensured that the effective tariffs for all services are in accordance with the tariffs as mentioned in advertisements. It also directs telecom operators not to pre-activate any tariff on consumer, optional in nature, without the consent of consumers. On billing, it desires all operators to provide detailed billing information to their consumers in accordance with license terms and conditions, regulations/directives issued by Authority, Code of Commercial Practices and service contract as approved by Authority.
Regulations regarding the Redressal of Consumer Grievances
Regarding the complaint handling mechanism these regulations make it compulsory for the operators to entertain complaints of consumers such as misuse of services, quality of service, illegal practices, poor services, misleading statements, non-provision of services, mobile portability related complaints etc by maintaining the confidential information about the consumer.
The Authority further desires that all the complaints at first stance shall be filed with the operator against whom the complainant has any grievances. And for this purpose the operator shall establish a mechanism which should be widely publicized. The operators are bound to establish a round the clock consumer care call centre having a dedicated helpline for lodging of consumer complaints and the charges of the call should not exceed the one determined by the Authority.
Upon receiving the complaint, the Operator must register the said complaint through the allocation of a unique complaint number, to be communicated to the complainant along with the specific time frame within which the Operator shall address Consumer grievance as soon as possible but not later than three working days. The procedure does not end here incase the complainant is not satisfied with the redressal or the Operator fails to respond within three working days the complaint can be registered with the Consumer Protection Directorate, in the PTA Headquarters, Islamabad or PTA Zonal offices.
Campaign for the Redressal of Consumer Grievances Mechanism
For the awareness of telecom consumers PTA has recently launched a campaign titled “Redressal of Consumer Grievances Mechanism”. In this campaign, telecom consumers were informed about proper procedure of lodging a complaint. Through this campaign three easy steps for lodging a complaint were explained to the consumer. If a consumer wants to lodge a complaint, in the first step he can contact the Service Provider through Call Center\Help line, Fax, Post, Email or Web Form Link.
In the second step the subscriber should ask few questions from the service provider regarding the Complaint No or Reference No, Redressal time line of Complaints and Escalation path in case the complaint is not resolved within stated timeline. And if still the complaint is not resolved, then in the third step subscriber may contact PTA.
It is expected that “the Consumer Protection Regulations 2009” will provide respite to the consumers from below standard telecom services. PTA efforts have resulted in benefits to the consumers in terms of network expansion, scope of services, reduction in tariffs and availability of an array of telecom operators with regard to choice of their service provider. And its recent achievements in the form of the “Consumer Protection Regulation, 2009” has marked another milestone for the benefit of the consumer. The Authority is committed towards protecting the telecom consumer rights and it plans to take further such steps in future.