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The consumer’s role in a liberalised telecommunications environment

By Censu Galea – Transport and Communications Minister

The communications sector has, in recent years, witnessed significant developments in Malta. A considerable amount of legislation has been passed, notably, the Telecommunications (Regulation) Act, the Malta Communications Authority Act and more recently, the Electronic Commerce Act. A variety of subsidiary legislation has also been enacted under the Telecommunications (Regulation) Act.

One significant feature of telecoms legislation is the importance given to the rights of the user or consumer. Article 28 of the Telecommunications (Regulation) Act expressly provides that the Authority has the duty "to protect the interests of the subscribers and users of telecommunications service", whilst giving users the right to request the Authority to investigate complaints about the quality of service provided by telecoms operators.
Indeed article 30 of the Act goes as far as to nullify any term in an agreement between a service provider and a user, if the term is inconsistent with any telecoms legislation or with the licence conditions.
Again, in the subsidiary legislation enacted to date, there are various measures aimed specifically at protecting consumer interests. The Internet and Other Data Networks Regulations require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to comply with consumer legislation and to have a code of practice that includes information about their charges and terms of service. Legal Notice 151 of 2000 dealing with telecommunication services in general, contemplates various measures aimed at protecting consumers, notably requiring service operators to provide their subscribers with a written contract that includes certain information deemed as essential. Significantly, in this context, operators are required, among other things, to publish clear and accurate tariffs for end-users and to make available a basic level of itemised billing at no extra charge.
Equally, if not more important, are the benefits that consumers are gaining as a result of the gradual liberalisation of the telecommunications market. One of the principal goals why the process of gradual liberalisation has been undertaken is to ensure that users of telecommunication services and systems have access to a wider choice both in terms of price and quality. The recent experience with mobile telephony is proof enough of the evident benefits for clients once the market is open to competition. In a relatively short span of time thousands of consumers in Malta benefited from lower tariffs and better service as a result of the change from a monopolistic environment to a keenly competitive one. By providing easy access and affordable rates to mobile telecommunications users, roughly one out of two persons in Malta today owns a mobile telephone.
Competition has also had the same impact in other sectors. The number of Internet subscriptions now amounts to almost 32 per cent of the whole population. This augurs well for the future. The coming changes, in particular, the full liberalisation of the telecoms market on 1 January 2003 will herald a new era in telecommunications, offering consumers in Malta new possibilities whilst ensuring that Malta is at the forefront of developments in this increasingly dynamic sector.
In the sphere of information society, important changes are also taking place. These changes are in part being driven by government itself, for the benefit of the public in general. The approval by Parliament earlier this year of the Electronic Commerce Act, the enactment of the distance selling regulations and the measures being taken by the e-Malta commission to promote an information society and economy in Malta, are all initiatives which are being undertaken to make information society a reality in Malta and which have served to fill in certain lacunae under our laws.
The coming into force of the E-Commerce Act will mean that certain transactions carried out on the internet will have the force of law. The new norms on distance selling mean that consumers are entitled to certain rights including notably the right to reject the product purchases within a cooling-off period of 15 days from the receipt of the product.
In promoting the initiatives on information society we must together ensure that all the members of society are able to benefit from the advantages that these new measures bring with them. However, there are certain issues that must be addressed. The advent of e-commerce involves certain inherent problems to which there are no easy solutions. For example what remedies does a consumer have in purchasing goods from another country and the goods received then prove to be defective? The use of credit cards in making orders over the net is another source of difficulty. The new laws being enacted must also be clearly complemented by extensive educational campaigns to alert consumers to certain risks when using such new means of technology to make their purchases.
Finally, it is of satisfaction to see that some of the operators have of their own initiative implemented voluntary means of self-regulation. We retain that such initiatives are in the interest, not only, of the consumer but also of the operator. Operators should not simply content themselves with complying with their obligations at law, but should compete with each other to offer their clients an optimum service at competitive prices. Such initiatives should not be undertaken only at the prompting of the competent authorities or in compliance with some legal or licence requirement but because the operator is genuinely convinced of the utility of such initiatives as a means of attracting new clients whilst ensuring the loyalty of existing clients.

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt