Over the years, the Telecommunications sector has experienced increase in the number of Telephone and GSM network subscribers. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission statistics, as at June 2020, the number of Telephone subscribers stood at 196.3million. This indicates a 12.9% increase in the number of Telephone subscribers recorded by June, 2019.
Telecommunications refer to the exchange of information by electronic and electrical means over a significant distance. Telecommunication services according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), are the general name for all services offered by, or over, a telecommunication network. They are services offered by a service provider over a telecommunication network.
The telecommunications sector is governed by a primary legislation known as the Nigerian Communications Act, 2003 (hereinafter referred to as NCA 2003). The Act establishes the Nigerian Communications Commission (hereinafter referred to as the NCC or the commission) which is the sole regulator of the telecommunications industry, empowered to ensure the protection and promotion of the interest of consumers against unfair practices, including, but not limited to matters relating to tariffs and charges for the availability and quality of communication services, equipment and facilities.
It is important to note that in every business or commercial transaction, there is a possibility or tendency of exploitation on the part of the party selling the good or rendering a particular service. Therefore, there is the need for the rights of consumers to be protected. Consumer protection is aimed at preventing exploitation and ensuring that consumers derive optimal satisfaction from the services available in the market. Hence, telecommunications service providers owe the duty of ensuring that subscribers derive satisfaction from the services for which they are being charged.
Section 157 of the NCA 2003 defines a subscriber/ consumer as any person who subscribes to and uses a communication service.
This article therefore examines the rights of telecommunications subscribers as well as the legal remedies available to subscribers whose rights have been breached.
THE NIGERIAN COMMUNICATIONS ACT 2003
The Nigerian Communications Act is an Act of the National Assembly pursuant to the enabling provisions of Section 4(2), Items 46& 68 of Part I and Paragraph 2(b) of Part III, Second Schedule to the 1999 Constitution.
Section 4(b), (c) and (h) of the Act place an obligation on the Commission to protect consumers from unfair practices of licensees and other persons in the supply of telecommunications services and facilities. To develop performance standards and indices relating to the quality of telecommunications services and facilities supplied to consumers and to monitor charges paid by consumers and the performance of the licensees. The provisions impose a duty on licensees, authorized carriers and other providers of telecommunications services and infrastructure to meet their commercial obligations.
Sections 70 and 106 of the Act confers power on the Commission to make and publish regulations and Guidelines for any matter which the Act makes express provision for and other salient matters that are necessary for giving full effect to the provisions of the Act and for their due administration. In the exercise of this power, the Commission has made and published several regulations and guidelines which are relevant to consumer protection, and among them are; the Consumer Code of Practice Regulations 2007 (hereinafter referred to as ‘the code’ or ‘CCPR 2007’), Quality Service Regulations, 2013, Dispute Resolution Guidelines, NCC (Registration of Telephone Subscribers) Regulations, 2011,and many more.
The rights of subscribers/consumers of telecommunications service in Nigeria as contained in relevant provisions of the Act as well as the regulations and guidelines made under it include (but are not limited to):
- right to quality services
- right to information
- right to fair charges and accurate billing
- right to privacy and protection of personal information
Right to Quality Services: The right to quality services and consumer protection is provided for under section 104 to 106 of the NCA 2003. The NCC has also made and published the Quality of Services Regulations 2013 (herein after referred to as QSR) to ensure
- the protection and promotion of the interest of consumers against unfair practices including matters relating to tariffs and charges
- the availability and quality of communications services, equipment and facilities;
- improve and maintain high level service quality, and
- provide adequate information that will help customers make an informed choice of services and service provided.
The QSR stipulates the minimum quality standards for different telecommunications services and the associated measurements, reporting and record keeping tasks of service providers. It is also empowered to direct service providers to compensate subscribers for poor quality of service and to impose fines on offending service providers. All service providers are therefore required to meet such minimum standards of quality of service as the Commission may from time to time specify and publish.
Right to Information: Paragraph 6(1) of the Consumer Code of Practice Regulations 2007 (CCPR 2007) provides that licensees shall provide consumers with information on their services that is complete, accurate, and up-to-date and in simple, clear language. Sub-section 2 of the same provision requires licensees to endeavor to respond in a timely manner to consumers’ requests for information on their services as every subscriber is entitled to certain basic information relating to the product or service that they want to purchase.
Service providers are also obligated to provide the consumer with information regarding any compensation, refund or other arrangements, which may apply if contracted quality service levels are not met, along with the procedures and methods for resolving disputes in respect of the service contract.
It is therefore important that consumers know their right to possess relevant information relating to a product or service as only known rights can be protected.
Right to Fair Charges and Accurate Billing: Licensees are to ensure that the billing of subscribers are not only accurate and timely, but also verifiable as provided under paragraph 21 of the CCPR 2007.
The Commission has made it mandatory for service providers to send End of Operation Notification (EON) to pre-paid consumers to show much they have been charged for every operation in order to enable consumers ascertain how much they have been charged for each call or text message. This directive took effect on November 1, 2012 and it requires that in the case of calls, the consumer should be provided with certain information such as call duration, total cost of call and new account balance; while for text messaging and other services such as multi-media transmission and internet access, the consumer should be informed of the cost of the service and new account balance.
Right to Privacy and Protection of Personal Information: In order to guarantee the accuracy of individual consumer information collected and stored by service providers, Paragraph 38 of the CCPR 2007 provides that licensees collecting, maintaining, using or disclosing individually identifiable consumer information shall take reasonable steps to ensure that the information is accurate, relevant and current for the purposes for which it is to be used. A consumer is entitled to exercise the right to have his or her directory information suppressed or removed. Paragraph 20 of the Code also ensures that consumer privacy is respected, their personal information protected and that they are not inundated with telemarketing advertisements and scam messages.
REMEDIES TO TELECOMMUNICATIONS SUBSCRIBERS
The Commission, by virtue of Sections 4(p) and 75(2) of the NCA 2003 is conferred with powers to resolve disputes between persons who are subject to the Act regarding any matter under the Act or its subsidiary legislation. However, an attempt shall first be made by the parties to resolve any dispute between them through negotiation before the involvement of the Commission.
The Commission has published the Dispute Resolution Guidelines, 2004 setting out the principles and procedures that it may take into account in resolving disputes or a class of disputes. The Guideline allows for the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution processes that are fair, just, economical and effective in resolving issues between disputing parties.
In conclusion, an aggrieved party seeking redress must avail himself of the full compliments of the provisions of the NCA 2003 in addressing grievances against the network Service Provider before commencing action. This principle was established in the case of Adeola v Ayeoba (2009) All FWLR (Pt.458) 365 where it was held that an aggrieved party must exhaust a line of action provided by a statute for the determination of an issue before going to court, otherwise the suit will be in contravention of a condition precedent and therefore incompetent.