Phone operators in breach of contracts

When Malawi embarked on a $20 million World Bank-funded Regional Communications Infrastructure Programme-Malawi Project, the expectation was that retail Internet tariffs would be made affordable to users.

However, over a year since the project, being implemented in 25 African countries, was completed in Malawi, retail Internet prices remain some of the highest in the world.

Under the project, 25 African countries, including Malawi, were expected to improve quality, availability and affordability of broadband.

Malawi is ranked 168 out of 175 economies by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), signaling the high cost of Internet tariffs.

Despite the project, though, it is business as usual for the local Internet service providers. Many Malawians use Internet via their smartphones or dongles through the available network operators—Airtel Malawi, Telekom Networks Malawi (TNM), Access Communications Limited (ACL) and Malawi Telecommunications Limited (MTL).

In a marketing drive to make subscribers believe they are making a saving, the operators introduced data bundles of various packages.

Ideally, the data bundles are a contract between the service provider and the subscriber. In reality, though, the contracts are hardly fulfilled. The operators breach them with impunity.

Today, it is common for subscribers, especially those on the Airtel Malawi network, to see their bundles exhausted faster than they bought them. To make matters worse, the subscribers have nowhere to complain as most times the so-called customer call centre executives brush them off tongue-in-cheek.

The operators have bundle packages for a day, a week and even a month.

The other time I took up the issue of “disappearance” of data bundles with Airtel, the customer executive told me the bundles were not meant to last their duration. He said their validity depends on usage. I argued that this was daylight robbery and a breach of contract. To which the executive explained it was not a breach of contract. He gave me an analogy of perishable consumer goods such as milk which, he said, has an expiry date but can go bad before the said date. Bundles work in the same way, he reasoned.

I must say I was not convinced.

Former Minister of Information and Communications Technology Malison Ndau described the high tariffs for Internet and voice calls in Malawi as “punishment to our own people”. I cannot agree more.

The Public Private Partnership Commission (PPPC) chief executive officer Jimmy Lipunga, in an interview with The Nation last December, wondered why the rates were still high. He said the issue was regulatory and fell within the jurisdiction of Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra).

To my surprise, Macra denied responsibility. It said it exists to regulate the market and not pricing. In other words, this means that Macra does not care whether the operators are skinning you and me alive as long as, at the end of the day, it gets fat cheques from the operators in form of fees. This is a very unfortunate situation the Malawian phone and Internet user find themselves in. They have nowhere to lodge their complaints regarding exorbitant rates.

Given that the regulator seems more interested to get revenue for the government, it is time we set up a consumer protection council that would look at such issues as pricing. Malawian subscribers have suffered in silence for a long time. n

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