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25.03.2006 Press Review

Editorial -Go! Major Tandoh!

By Statesman

- National Communications Authority must be fired to act There are nearly 3 million mobile phone subscribers in Ghana. With this number of cell phone users, and the growth in cell-phone usage, far outpacing the still-gappy fixed line network in its national saturation, an efficient regulatory body is required to ensure that competition in this essential sector means both quantity and quality. Mobile phone adverts dominate the country's bill boards, with service providers jostling for space and first place in the market. Mobile phone adverts crowd out the others on television and radio; it is mobile phone companies who sponsor events, give out prices and t-shirts; even in newspapers such as this one it is mobile phone companies who occupy many of the advertising pages, contributing immensely to our survival. In fact, the competition and the consequent marketing drives is perhaps more intense in the telecommunications business than in any other single sector in this country. A question too seldom asked however is whether, once the glitzy advertising and special offers have done their work, these companies are devoting as much time, energy and funding to looking after their hard-won customers. Whether mobile phone companies in this country are providing their users with value for money and a service they can depend on, or whether they are all being allowed to make their customers settle for second-best, whilst profits go elsewhere and frustrations build. Because competition does not always breed quality; at least, not for the consumers, who are the treasure being fought over in this ongoing battle. In the case of our communications industry, this match was never supposed to be a free-for-all, of course; there were supposed to be rules and referees to oversee the game and protect the interests of the spectators over whom these Big Players fight. But the referee is simply not doing its job – and it is at the door of the failed watchdog that the blame for the current state of our telecommunications industry ought to be blamed. Booming? Yes. Satisfying customers? Less so. The National Communications Authority Act of 1996 set up the National Communications Authority, whose responsibilities include: - To ensure that communications system operators achieve the highest level of efficiency in the provision of communications services and are responsive to customer and community needs; - To promote fair competition among persons engaged in the provision of communications services; - To protect the interests of consumers. The emphatic failure of the NCA to fulfill these objects is everyday apparent, but has been left unaddressed for too long; it is time the entire committee should be sacked, The Statesman says – they have been inactive long enough. So far, the “highest level of efficiency” ensured by this NCA is one with networks which are constantly “too busy” to manage the influx of calls at peak times; times when every “number you have called is either switched off or out of service area” when you know it is nothing of the kind; days when every call you make is subject to such an 'echo' that it is impossible to hear the other person speak – yet you get billed for hearing your own voice! For an industry in this country that can boast of service providers making in excess of $1 million every day – with very little of this coming back into the local economy, even through taxation – the regulator should at least be elevating the minimum floor of customer care. Why, with such obvious profits being made, has the NCA not ensured that this wealth is being ploughed back into the system, to push for this “highest level of efficiency”? Why have mobile phone operators not been forced to be more “responsive to customer and service-specific community needs” – the specific mandate of the NCA to ensure that this was the case. Because so far the telecommunications system in this country has been too tailored to the interests of the companies, as they fight for their customers and are then left unsupervised to treat or mistreat them as they please. In some respects, it has been in the interests of these companies to neglect customer needs; it is cost-saving, yes, but also beneficial in other ways. There is no single network in this country, for example, which can be relied upon to have blanket-coverage in all areas. There is also a persistent problem with communication between networks, with some 024 numbers often unable to get through to 020 numbers, and whilst the cost of calls between subscribers to the same network is reasonable, cross-network calls are unjustifiably high. OneTouch and Ghana Telecom are even part of the same company, but to call a landline number from a OneTouch cell phone can be extortionately expensive. The result is that many people chose to carry two or more phones, each registered with a different network provider: substandard service can serve to boost phone sales, and thus there is no pressure on mobile companies to improve their level of service provision.

Where the pressure should have come from, of course, is the dormant NCA; entrusted as it is with the responsibility to “protect the interests of customers” and not that of unbridled capitalism. It is entrusted to promote “fair competition,” too – but whilst the companies themselves might be on an equal footing, the NCA has done nothing to ensure any level of “fairness” for the customer, who suffers daily from the Authority's abject failure on inability to act.

The Director of NCA has been 'Acting' for over five years; there was clearly a reason why his appointment was never confirmed, and The Statesman now calls for its prompt termination. The NCA must be fired to act – period.