Can you hear me now? The voice of Caribbean telecoms consumers
A discussion on the growing concern that the Caribbean telecoms/ICT consumer is not top consideration in those markets, and what they can do to regain their voice.
Though it might have always been the case, the recent announcement of Cable & Wireless Communications Plc’s intention to purchase Columbus International Inc. (which trade as LIME and Flow, respectively, in the Caribbean) has truly brought home that consumers tend to be an afterthought in the region’s telecoms space. Indeed, the proposed purchase might be the most prominent issue in the region’s ICT/tech space, but there are others, which although they might not have the far-reaching implications of the sale, nevertheless emphasise the eroding position of consumers.
Proposed acquisition of Flow by LIME
With regard to the proposed purchase, arguments are being made in various quarters that consumers will benefit from the merger of those two firms. However, so far, history does not support that position, where many countries across the Caribbean experienced an expensive and indifferent monopoly that only changed tact when competition was introduced and it started to lose market share. Moreover, in the services for which it did have a monopoly, for example fixed-line telephony, quality of service remained poor and there was little or no innovation in those segments.
Having said this, the blame cannot be placed solely at the feet of the telecoms firms: the regulators are also culpable. As discussed in a recent article by Bevil Wooding, the deal exposes gaps in the regulatory frameworks across the region. As a result, and noting the Regulators’ Forum organised by the Caribbean Telecommunications Union and scheduled for 10—11 December, countries are now scrambling to determine what recourse they might have with respect to the proposed acquisition.
Paper versus e-billing
In a similar vein, it is instructive to also examine LIME’s plan across the region to charge customers for paper bills, effective 1 January 2015. The charge, which appeared to have been unilaterally developed and announced over the past two weeks, was quickly rescinded in some countries, due to the resulting uproar.
The option to receive electronic versus paper bills would most likely to be welcomed in many quarters, as it would allow timely dispatch of bills, especially in countries or areas where the post might not be efficient. Further, and from an environmental perspective, less paper means less greenhouse emissions and a greener planet. However, LIME seemingly backing down on charging for paper bills might not necessarily be the end of this episode, as there would be a significant cost component for producing and dispatching bills across the countries LIME serves.
Consumer protection and quality of service for the times
Across the Caribbean, customer protection and quality of services in telecoms has generally received limited treatment. For the countries that do have laws or regulations on those subjects, they might be dated, or with respect to customer protection, were written generically to be applicable to all industries. Hence customers tend to find that they have little recourse, especially for quality of service, where although there is an expectation of having round-the-clock telecoms service, failures in service can take hours, or even days to rectify, without recourse.
To varying degrees, regulators across the region have not been eager to remedy the quality of service issues that consumers have been experiencing. Possible reasons for this posture could be that they hope that competition will address those deficiencies, they do not perceive them as urgent, and/or they do not have the wherewithal to secure expert advice they might need. However, it also means that consumers are likely to continue to get the short end of the stick.
Regaining our voice as consumers
Though it might appear that consumers are innocent bystanders in the telecoms/ICT space, without a doubt, they do have a powerful voice. Policy makers are especially sensitive to the views and opinions of the populace; but it is important to speak up when given an opportunity, such as in consultations, town hall meetings, and even in the media.
Further, ICT and telecoms have become sexy in the press, where lots of column inches and sound bites are being given regularly to the latest developments in those areas. Hence increasingly there is a considerable amount of information and opinions in the public domain through which to learn about a particular subject, along with the issues and contentions that might exist.
Image credit: Stuart Miles (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)