The consumers role in a liberalised telecommunications
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
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.