Nyombi Thembo, the state minister for Information Communication Technology in whose docket the telecom sub-sector falls, took the lead role in venting his frustration with telecom operators at a recent dialogue in Kampala. He albeit - and understandably given his position - chose to toe the diplomatic line when everybody in the Primrose Hall at Imperial Royale Hotel expected that he would be more forthright.
As a consumer of your services, I must say some times I face frustrations," Thembo coyly said while opening the dialogue organized by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), two days ahead of World Consumer Rights Day on March 15.
But one other user, James Tweheyo, the general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU), was more plainspoken about his telecom service provider, which he did not name.
On Feb.6, Tweheyo had an infuriating experience with one of the local telecom companies. After touching down at Entebbe Airport, he attempted to make a call using the line he has owned for the last four years.
To his shock, the number was inactive. Surprisingly, Tweheyo had used the number without any problem until Jan.3, at Entebbe Airport before boarding his flight to Denmark where he stayed for about 20 days.
On inquiring, he was told the number does not belong to him, but to one, Isaac Musasizi. Afraid of losing his contacts and being cut off from the 169,000 teachers he represents in the union, he immediately filed a written complaint seeking redress.
In the letter that The Independent has seen, Tweheyo demands to know when and why his number was transferred from him to Musasizi. He also demands to know why he was allowed and enabled to use the same number for three years until Jan.3.
"May I also know the fate of the data and information that was stored on this card and what you intend to use it for and whether I will have access to it or not," Tweheyo's letter reads in part. The operator acknowledged receipt of the complaint on Feb.7 but as of March 15, Tweheyo's issue had not been resolved.
Yet, this was among a plethora of bizarre experiences shared at the forum by a section of Uganda's 17 million mobile phone customers. Indeed, in a petition presented to UCC and the ICT ministry, Sam Watasa, the executive director of the Uganda Consumers' Protection Association (UCPA) on behalf of five consumer rights organizations, said although service providers and UCC have observed and promoted consumer rights by tracking and releasing Quality of Service Reports, there seems to be a substantial neglect of consumers by telecom service providers. There is urgent need to end the abuse of their rights, the petition stresses.
"We do recognize the importance and value of telecommunications services as they have become an indispensable part of our lives and the activities we engage in on a daily basis," the petition reads in part.
The consumer rights organizations want fair and responsible services, establishment of a robust system for addressing consumer complaints in a logical, efficient and affordable manner. Additionally, they want consumers' complaints to be addressed through reasonable compensation of losses made arising from charges on unsolicited services and unsuccessful delivery of services. They also want an overall recognition of consumer rights and provision of services in respect of consumer rights.
The majority of consumer complaints concern billing, unsolicited calls and text messages, inaccessibility of lines and other services, general network quality and 'nonchalant' attitude of call agents.
Other complaints are in regard to mobile transactions for different telecom operators, promotions and value added services such as caller tunes.
However, according to UCC, not every inquiry that comes to them is a complaint. This explains why of all the 42,000 inquiries that were made in that period, only 269 were registered as complaints.
In that period, UCC registered 20 complaints on billing, unsolicited messages (16), data and internet (10) while mobile money-related cases were only 6.
Watasa however said the "few complaints" lodged at UCC were only a tip of the iceberg. He said inadequate information to consumers in order to enable them make informed decisions to the cumbersome process of consumer complaints management including redress were responsible for the few complaints. As a result, only a small fraction of consumers exercise their right to complain.
"It is unimaginable that only 20 complaints were made on billing and 16 on unsolicited messages, the QoS report is therefore not a robust framework to assess consumer satisfaction or lack of it," Watasa said.
Watasa says once frustrated, telecom consumers find it even less attractive to refer the matters to UCC since complaining about a complaint is costly.
The problems are so rampant that consumers now assume "it is the way networks are designed to work," according to Watasa.
The consumers' petition also asked UCC to address promotions, 'free' airtime and charges on unsolicited ringtones. They further asked UCC to define the terms and conditions of promotions, which are never clearly specified to the consumers.
According to Consumers International -- a federation of consumer groups around the world -- this year's World Consumers Rights Day theme, "Fix Our Phone Rights" sets out the agenda on issues that most affect telecom consumers including the need for access to a reliable service, the security of their data and fair contracts and billing.
The global consumer rights agency wants telecoms to provide consumers with access to an affordable reliable service, provide consumers with fair contracts explained in clear, complete and accessible language, provide consumers with security and power over their own information and listen and respond to consumer complaints.
At the dialogue, the four major operators blamed their challenges to offer quality services on rampant vandalism, theft and ineffective policies that are frustrating their operations, while others said they had indeed made improvements in handling customers' complaints.
For instance, Ali Amir, Uganda Telecom's managing director, said at the beginning of 2013, their dropped calls were as high as 26% but by the beginning of 2014, that percentage had dropped to 6%.
However, he asked customers to understand the environment under which the companies are operating. Amir said due to rapid economic growth Uganda is experiencing now as evidenced by the constructions around the country, their network infrastructure suffers regular cuts.
In 2013 alone, Utl experienced 13 fibre cuts, and in an earlier similar incidence this year, the company spent about Shs 120m to provide alternative services as the problem was being fixed.
"Uganda being landlocked means that there are things that are sometimes simply beyond our control, for instance, the occasional undersea cable cuts," he said. Amir urged the government to follow Kenya and enact telecom infrastructure protection laws.
Dennis Kakonge from Airtel echoed Amir's sentiments, saying Airtel in the recent past has invested $ 250m towards infrastructure upgrade and more will be spent in the next few months.
He said they have also been victims of vandalism and theft. Between January and December, 2013, Airtel registered over 100 fibre cuts, 106 litres of fuel and over 400 batteries were stolen across Uganda. These affect service delivery, he noted.
"We need the government to come in quickly with a number of punitive laws to protect telecom infrastructure," he said.
His colleague, Pheona Wall, the Airtel publicist, said some of the criticism directed at them was unfair because during the period when the data was collected, Airtel was experiencing challenges because of the integration with Warid Telecom.
Anthony Katamba, MTN's general manager for Corporate Services, attributed customer complaints to content providers whom he called upon UCC to rein in. He said the liberalisation of short code services in 2007 brought about all sorts of companies that have contributed to the increase in customer complaints.
Katamba said MTN's further investment in infrastructure would significantly improve their quality of services.
However, he dismissed claims that customers were losing money due to dropped calls; as MTN charges only for the time the call lasted.
Simon Kaheru, who represented content providers under their umbrella association - Wireless Application Service Provider's Association of Uganda- (WASPA-U) came out to defend them. He said WASPA-U has a membership of about 20 registered members, but there are several non-registered content providers who somehow are also working with the telecom companies.
"We have a code of conduct and public platform where issues of discontent can be addressed," Kaheru said. He also blamed the misunderstanding to lack of consumer education and awareness.
But even with these explanations, customers left the symposium dissatisfied. Eng. Elisha Wasukira, the coordinator at I-Network, a Kampala-based NGO that supports the use of ICTs across sectors in Uganda, noted that it was unfortunate for the telecom companies to 'explain away' most of the customers' issues.
"The blame game is unfortunate. We can't continue using excuses because that won't get us anywhere," Wasukira said.
"The point which was missed by the telecom companies is that consumers are actually paying a lot for poor quality services. The stress and inconvenience you suffer is real and that cannot be costed."
According to Fred Muwema, a city lawyer, Uganda is currently grappling with many anti-competitive practices, which in the end make consumers suffer. He said unless a robust legal framework is instituted, telecom consumers may complain forever.
Consumer protection and competition laws need to be expedited if Uganda is to deal with the current range of commercial vices, he said. Muwema noted that in East Africa, it is only Uganda that is yet to get laws on competition and consumer protection. Now that even the minister in charge of the sector is complaining, consumers could only hope that the government will probably wake up to save the long-suffering Ugandans.