TATT considers customer power

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Above: Bernadine Rawlins and Trevonne Clarke-Ferguson take questions at the 29th TATT Open Forum. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1199 for May 30, 2019

Last week, the Telecommunications Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (TATT) held its 29th ICT Open Forum to consider public perspectives on ‘Consumer Power’ in the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors.

Curiously enough, it was not overwhelmingly subscribed, with fewer than half of the seats in the room taken by the public.

Even more curiously, few of the questions being put to the attending panel had anything to do with telecommunications at all.

It might be tempting to think that local consumers are a satisfied lot and saw no need to come to badger TATT and the presenters in person, but according to Stephen Tang Nian, a TATT board member who gave opening remarks, complaints to the authority quadrupled between 2017 and 2018 after a complaint line, 800-TATT was introduced.

Bringing a perspective from the US was James Brown, Consumer Data Advisor in the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The US telecommunications complaint profile is different from ours. Most of the complaints to the FCC are about unwanted calls.

Telemarketing hasn’t done well in TT, perhaps because we have no problems abruptly hanging up, but the FCC’s model of service overwhelmingly favours online interaction, and only 10,000 of the 29,000 monthly complaints are phone calls.

That makes it possible to answer many questions via the FCC website using prepared materials, “tip sheets,” as Brown described them, that users can have delivered in different ways.

Two hundred of these consumer guides are available on the FCC website.

Providers have 15 days to respond to an informal complaint, before it can be escalated to formal status, which involves a fee and legal representation.

The FCC has an enforcement bureau for cases that get to that stage.

Bernadine Rawlins, Senior Consumer Advocate in the TT Consumer Affairs Division offered more general advice to consumers.

“Suppliers and vendors have a responsibility to their customers,” Rawlins said, “but customers also have a responsibility for themselves.”

Customers, she warned, must evaluate what they purchase, the condition, operability, terms and conditions of sale and ensure that they have received proof of purchase as well as a warranty.

“When consumers don’t respond rationally,” she said, “it causes problems in the market, sending vendors the wrong signals.”

TREVONNE CLARKE-FERGUSON – TATT

The Consumer Affairs Division must rely on moral suasion to resolve complaints, which it may engage external resources to investigate, but it has no power to enforce action.

Moral suasion might seem like a weak response, but in a chart presented by Rawlins at the forum, it was clear that complaints fell by 30 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Asked about this, Rawlins noted that the division had been doing consumer education over the last three years and that some suppliers had implemented their own customer redress systems, dealing with such matters internally.

Intriguingly, Rawlins noted that there is a regional push to create not just more dovetailing of consumer protection laws in the Caribbean, but the launch of Carrex, an online early warning tool that enables complaints about dangerous, non-food goods offered for sale.

The website has been producing reports for 22 weeks, but no dangerous items have been flagged in the Caribbean yet. Fifteen member states have signed up to participate in the project.

Trevonne Clarke-Ferguson, a TATT economist, explained that the telecommunications market doesn’t work well when consumers don’t exercise their options.

“When consumers don’t respond rationally,” she said, “it causes problems in the market, sending vendors the wrong signals.”

When consumers switch between services based on satisfaction, the market becomes more competitive.

Clarke-Ferguson urged consumers to share both their negative and positive experiences in the telecoms market widely and to act on their experiences.

The Consumer Power forum audience. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

The Consumer Affairs Division warns…

When you seek redress, don’t try to get any item repaired on your own, your first point of contact must be with the vendor.

Grounds for redress – if an item is defective or cannot be used for its intended purpose or the description of the item is false or misleading.

Consumer affairs looks for breaches or violation of laws, reviews consumer complaints and has its own intelligence gathering and monitoring process. 

Complaints may take longer when the agency must engage external resources to evaluate the complaint

Key TATT statements…

TATT’s guidelines prohibit unapproved tied sales (those which demand that a customer buy something they don’t want to get something that they do.

The authority has the power to regulate the prices in a monopoly market segment –  one without effective competitive forces in play.

Providers are not supposed to implement immediate price increases and should do so only after announcing the change 30 days before.

Services delivered by providers are supposed to be the same in cost and content across the national market.

At the end of a service contract, locked phones are supposed to be unlocked.