Macra takes a stand on consumer protection

By Gregory Gondwe, Blantyre, Malawi

The Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (Macra) has taken a bold step to protect consumers in the Information Communication Technology (ICT) industry by establishing a Consumer Affairs Unit (CAU) within its ambit, which has already set out operation guidelines.

In Malawi, the general law governing consumer protection is Consumer Protection Act, but Deputy Director for Consumer Affairs in the CAU Thokozani Chimbe however, says the Communications Act, whose provisions establishes Macra, gives the regulatory body broad powers to promote the interests of communication consumers.

“The Act in section 32 further gives Macra the powers to facilitate the formulation of regulation to assist with the implementation of the Act,” she says.

Under this power, Macra says has now drafted the Communication Consumer Protection Regulations.

Macra Public Relations Manager Clara Mulonya said the authority is coming in full force to ensure that the rights of consumers, in respect of ICT services, are protected and that their complaints are expeditiously investigated and resolved to their satisfaction.

Macra Board Chairperson Martha Kwataine explained that as Malawi strives for better ICT services, all service providers need to put the consumer interests at heart to ensure that whenever problems arise, they should continue solving them amicably.

“This comes in the light of complaints from the public regarding what they have dubbed ‘raw deal’ on internet and mobile services. Much as we appreciate problems faced by operators, which are mostly beyond their control, in some instances, the poor quality is not justifiable,” she said.

Kwataine said it must be appreciated that as regulators, they are also customers and therefore fully identify with complaints that are being raised by customers.

Chimbe says consumer protection remains one of the major reasons why continued communication regulation is essential in the midst of dynamic technological changes that drive the ICT industry.

She says consumer protection involves ensuring that communication goods and services are offered to the consumers within required set standards and that they are safe for the intended use.

“It is what keeps consumers from getting a raw deal from communication service providers. In order to make consumer protection viable there are various rights which every consumer is entitled to,” she says.

These rights, Chimbe further says, give rise to the consumer protection laws which in turn help in the formation of various consumer protection strategies and measures. She observes that technological changes have continued to affect the regulatory landscape in the industry.

“The communication sector requires specific consumer protection intervention,” she declares.

The biggest challenge according to Chimbe is the liberalisation of the communication sector which spurs competition for bigger market share among the service providers.  She says this has forced them to start changing the focus of provision of services for the public good and attainment of social goals to providing the services for profit.

“It can broadly be said that consumer protection deals with ensuring that consumer rights are safeguarded so that communication service providers are doing so without any detriment and unfair disadvantage to their consumers,” she explains.

With the advanced technological changes in telecommunication industry, especially convergence technologies, these challenges have now been compounded as it has in turn created new breed of services that have increased competition.

Chimbe warns that competition is often characterised by potential market failures including high prices, insufficient supply, poor quality of services and reliability, slow repairs, slow introduction of new services, inaccurate and incontestable bills, corrupt practices in allocating scarce services and new service provider barriers.

“Consumer protection aims at taking measure to safeguard consumers against such market failures and ensuring that new and emerging ICT services are introduced with limited detriment to the consumers,” she says.

The growing ICT industry, Charles Nsaliwa, Macra Director General, says, is bringing with it the anti-competition behaviour which is unhealthy to the consumers as well as to the ICT players themselves.

In view of this, he says among many interventions, Macra has also entered an agreement with Competition and Fair Trading Commission (CFTC) in order to establish the manner which the parties should collaborate with each other on matters relating to anti-competitive behaviour and unfair trading practices in the communication sector.

He said this is why they are trying to minimise the duplication of activities wherever possible, and improve understanding of the roles of the commission and authority.

“I wish to assure consumers, mainly for telephony and internet services that MACRA will never blink an eye until the fight to make these services affordable and of the highest quality is won,” he declared.

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