When a customer purchases a SIM card, they get into a contractual agreement with a network provider. However, the contract at the point of sale is a one page document with hardly any information that the customer could be curious to inspect. Nothing is particularly highlighted for your attention. This contract is as basic in educating the consumer as the time it takes to buy it – usually at some street corner by half torn, manila branded vehicle boarded by some clamorous tout with a megaphone louder than the rest of the rank marshals.
There is no elaboration of the kind of services that you’re now privileged with. There is no description of the charges and charging mechanisms. In fact most users will purchase a SIM card because they know it allows them to make calls from a cell phone and get onto the internet. They know nothing about the legal aspects of the “line” they have just bought nor the other services they can benefit from. Somehow consumers are supposed to figure out that there is call forwarding, per second billing, the actual cost of making a call, call waiting and data services and the sort.
Problems arise when a user for instance eventually stumbles upon call forwarding. The user in question (who inspired me to discuss these shortcomings) did not realise that they would be charged exactly the same for forwarding calls as the rate of a normal call. In their opinion they specifically told the network to forward all calls. So should they be charged for choosing not to receive a call? It makes perfect sense to the carrier of course because it’s their charging model and they can justify it any way they want. The contention however is, did they explain this to customers. Is it written on some banner in their shops or the contract of sale of services? What are the rights of the consumer in this particular situation? How much awareness should the customer be equipped with so that they are not prejudiced by service providers and just how much obligation do these service providers themselves have in educating their consumers about their products and services.
The prejudice in the above example is small. That is just one customer on one service. But how many more services are sold and consumed with an obscure cost structures prejudicing the customer? Who knows exactly how much roaming costs? Since there is now a $0.05 tax on Mobile Money Transactions (MMT), does that mean every balance inquiry I do via USSD is charged? If I am advanced $0.50 by my Network, how come they recover $0.55? They did not tell me about the extra charge. Is call barring charged? Why do I keep receiving all these “Win a trip” text messages? All of these questions which sound very basic are of paramount importance to the consumer and in some instances could be the difference between good or bad service and infringing on consumer rights at the worst.
Consumer Council of Zimbabwe
The CCZ has an obligation to “protect consumers, protect manufacturing standards, improve consumer awareness through education and to settle disputes between consumers and supplier”. However, that’s as far as they go because they are only a lobby organisation. The CCZ has successfully advocated for such legislation as the Consumer Contract Act which labours to protect consumers against unfair contracts. However, it would seem the responsibility to look after the interests of consumers ultimately lies in the government.
Ministries of ICT and Courier Services
Much emphasis at some point was placed on the SIM registration regulations and how you would be disconnected if you didn’t register. The same vigor is conspicuously absent from efforts to bring comfort to the consumer. Only recently has there been a draft of Consumer Protection Guidelines which try to balance off the expectations and obligations of both consumer and service provider in a SLA of some sort. Some of the questions we are passionate about are answered in this draft. What’s disheartening is that until such goodwill goes through the various strata of becoming law, consumers may continue to be disadvantaged in one way or another.
Some of the obligations service providers to consumers include:
- If a service is activated electronically, a service provider must display a message, depending on the device, with the terms and conditions, commissions and the nitty – gritty. You should not be asked to agree to an electronic service by signing for it on paper.
- Service providers must provide information on first access via the accessing device about the service and how to agree / disagree with terms and conditions and how to unsubscribe. This should be provided at first activation directly to the device in use the same way a browser pops up when you access hotspot wi-fi.
- Service providers should offer a toll free connection that is actively attended to for customer support. All basic user assistance should be made available at the lowest possible cost. This should be enforced legislatively to ensure all companies comply.
- All Service Providers should contribute to government intelligence by enabling collection of stats like the IMEI stats. Imagine my surprise when I realised there is no immediate way to determine the number of active smartphones using the three networks.
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