Carolyn Cooper | Who is regulating the OUR?
The director general of the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR), Ansord Hewitt, responded quite quickly to the four questions I emailed him about consumer protection in the telecoms sector. His email went to spam, so I didn't see it until after I'd written last week's column, 'FLOW giveth and FLOW taketh away'.
It's just as well. I wouldn't have been able to deal with the OUR adequately then. It needed a whole column. So here's my first question: Can dissatisfied FLOW customers file a class-action suit against Liberty Global? The response:
"The Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) is not in a position to answer that question definitively, although, to be perfectly candid, we are reluctant to offer specific legal advice on what recourse is available through the courts, as much depends on the nature of the claim and the remedy sought. That said, however, we are not aware that a class-action suit is a recourse that is available in this jurisdiction."
That's typical bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo; or sound legal advice. Take your pick! I say mumbo-jumbo. I wasn't asking for a definitive answer or specific legal advice - just general guidelines. And, surely, the OUR should be 'aware' of whether or not a class-action suit can be filed in Jamaica.
My second question: If so, how? The response: "See response to question 1." My third question was: Are there any laws that protect consumers against utility companies that fail to deliver the services for which they are paid? I got a very lengthy five-part response, covering all utilities. I can't quote it in full.
Here's the section that's most relevant: "As regards the ICT sector for which the OUR's remit is limited to voice telephony and data services, there are no existing guaranteed standards." Really? We would never have guessed. The director general elaborates:
"The assumption after liberalisation was that given the robust competition that existed within the sector, most consumer's issues [sic] would have been addressed via the competitive response. The indication, however, is that this has not been the experience of most customers and so there is need for further measures."
A DISGUISED MONOPOLY?
The director general of the OUR is absolutely right. Consumer issues have not been solved by competition. Perhaps FLOW and Digicel aren't really competitors. Could it be that they are actually a disguised monopoly? Six of one and half a dozen of the other! Or, to use a local idiom, both FLOW and Digicel giving us a six for a nine!
Mr Hewitt does promise a solution. I hope it's not the proverbial comfort to a fool: "Consequently, the OUR, even while intervening on a case-by-case or situation-by-situation basis to address ICT customer concerns, is pursuing a number of initiatives to provide consumers with better options for redress. These are detailed as part of the response to question 4 below."
My final question: If not, what is being done to put such laws in place? I got another five-part answer. Again, I cannot quote it in full. In essence, Mr Hewitt confirms that the OUR has actually proposed rules to guide the sector. But guess what?
"Drafting instructions for these rules have been passed to the Ministry of Science, Energy and Technology (MSET) for submission to the Office of the Chief Parliamentary Counsel who will convert them into regulations. Once these are promulgated, they will have the force of law and can be enforced by the OUR."
The final version of the drafting instructions was submitted by the OUR only last month. Why has it taken so long for the regulatory process to get to this stage? Who is benefiting from the present state of affairs? Certainly not the consumer!
Why have successive governments failed to pass legislation to protect us from the telecoms pirates? We cannot allow ourselves to be constantly raped by 'service' providers whose only intention is to hold down an tek weh. On Tuesday, I got an email with a link to a letter in the Barbados Nation, headlined 'Paying for service I do not receive'. It was a familiar complaint against FLOW:
"I fully understand that I am one of thousands of Barbadians who complain daily about the services provided to them by FLOW. ... I suspect, though, that this letter will not move FLOW to improve its services to their customers."
I immediately emailed CARICOM's Caribbean Telecommunications Union (CTU) to ask what is being done about the long-standing problems with FLOW across the entire region. I got an earnest response from a spokesperson of the CTU, which included the following:
"The CTU would encourage regulators across the region to be more vigilant and firm in enforcing the provisions of the licence under which service providers operate. This is particularly so with the recent consolidation that is taking place since the liberalisation of the sector in the mid-1990s. Their emphasis must be heavily weighted in the consumer's interest. They must ensure that the consumer is getting a fair deal at affordable cost."
This was not reassuring. Encouragement is not enough. Regulatory bodies cannot function efficiently without the necessary legislation. When Liberty Global, the owners of FLOW, demands more money for its services, what is the Jamaican Government going to do? Raise taxes? Don't get me started on that!