Telecommunication laws and rights of the consumers
Abu Zayed Mohammad and Oli Md. Abdullah Chowdhury
Bangladesh Telecommunication Act (Act 18 of 2001) paved the way for the establishment of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC). There had been hardly any independent monitoring mechanism for the telecommunication sector before BTRC came into being. Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board (BTTB) had the sole monopoly and they were the only telecom operator until mobile phone technology flourished and foreign companies (trans-national corporations) started operating in Bangladesh. Earlier laws and regulation neither covered modern aspect of telecommunication nor were the regulatory implementation mechanisms in place.
After foreign mobile operators started their operations in Bangladesh, BTTB faced intense competitions. Consumers were gradually turning their faces towards mobile companies though service charges of these operators were relatively higher in the initial years. In this changing operating environment, necessity was felt for a regulator. BTTB was unable to be a regulator as it was also service provider and competitor for the private sector. In order to regulate telecommunication sector, Bangladesh Telecommunication Act was promulgated. It has been stated in Section 6 of the Act, “On the commencement of this Act, a Commission to be known as the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission shall be established”.
Status of consumers in the telecom sector
According to the website of BTRC, the total number of mobile phone active subscribers has reached 46.50 million at the end of April 2009. Though the number of subscribers is quite huge, consumers have got little attention in the telecommunication sector. Call charges went down due to intense competition, although there are allegations of hidden charges for different offers and packages offered by the different service providers. Giant operators often block access to other networks and consumers fail to get connection during peak hours. There are other forms of exploitation also reported by consumers and the media. There are specific allegations against mobile operators for breaking the laws of the land. One such example is the recently reported case (Case No. 46 under Gulshan Police Station, Dhaka), filed by BTRC on Jan 16, 2008 against Grameenphone for illegal VoIP business. It is not the first instance though. Earlier in 2007, most of the private operators paid fines for facilitating illegal VOIPs trading.
Such irregularities and alleged illegalities also raise questions about the relationship of the telecommunication service providers with their customers. As per the purview of the Bangladesh Telecommunications Act, it has been stated in Section 59 (1) “Every operator providing telecommunication service shall establish sufficient number of complain-centres so that he can collect information on the inconvenience or complain of the consumers in respect of that service or related matters, and shall, form time to time, publish notice about the location of, and communication with, such centres”. It has been articulated further in the later sub-section, ”Any consumer may, by telephone message or written complaint, present his inconvenience or complain”. If operator fails to address the issue or consumer is not happy, Telecommunication Act still provides option for consumers.
Moreover, there is provision in the law to complain directly to regulating authority. There is also a specified timeframe for regulator to respond.
It has been stated in Section 59 (6), “Within 7 (seven) days of receipt of such application, the Commission may, after necessary inquiry, give proper directions to the service provider to take necessary steps for resolving the said inconvenience or complain.”
Processes for addressing consumer redress
A compulsory enforcement order might be issued by the regulating authority when operator fails to comply with the provision of subsection 59(6). “If a licensee or the holder of a certificate or permit- (a) violates any provision of this Act or regulations or any condition of the license or permit in operating a system or in providing a service; or
(b) has procured the license or permit or technical acceptance certificate by furnishing a false information, the Commission may direct the licensee or the holder of the permit or certificate to show cause within 30 (thirty) days as to why an enforcement order shall not be issued or why the license or permit or certificate shall not be cancelled”.
Where there is satisfactory explanation unavailable, the Commission may impose upon the violator an administrative fine. The fine could be up to 3 (three) lac taka and, if the violation continues after the issuance of the order, an additional administrative fine could be charged.
The piece of law also authorises BTRC to suspend or cancel the license. There is a provision in Section 63. There is also scope to impose additional conditions. Therefore, Bangladesh Telecommunication Act has comprehensively authorised BTRC to take every action.
All the provisions, referred above would have very little impact if the consumers themselves are not aware of the protective mechanisms and willing to take recourse to such measures. Raising awareness of the consumers, therefore, is really crucial. Consumers are largely unaware of the rights enshrined in Bangladesh Telecommunication Act. Nor do they know about the function of BTRC as regulatory body. As a result, they fail to get remedies when rights are violated.
Mobile service consumer forum could be formed to address the issues raised by consumers. If consumers are united, there would be a scope to deal with mobile operators effectively. The Consumer Rights organisations in the country could facilitate such processes on the part of the consumers.
BTRC has done a commendable job in earning extra revenue for the country and punishing mobile operators for illegal VOIP. However, there are growing expectations on the side of consumers. Telecom regulator should come forward in upholding the rights of consumers in mobile sector. And the consumer rights organisations need to play a proactive role in this process by raising awareness of the consumers, as well as assisting in facilitating telecommunication consumers forums under the Constitutional freedom of association.
Abu Zayed Mohammad is associated with The Consumers' Trust (TCT). Oli Mohammad Abdullah Chowdhury is currently working for FIVDB.
The views expressed here are those of the writers themselves and do not necessarily convey the views of the organisations they are associated with.