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.”

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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?

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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!

TELECOMS PIRATES

a-raja-pirate1Why have successive governments failed to pass appropriate 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!

FLOW Giveth and FLOW Taketh Away

Blessed be the name of FLOW? Hell, no! FLOW isn’t giving the Jamaican consumer a damn thing. We are paying premium rates for a less-than-premium product. And something has got to be done about it. Last Wednesday, I’d had enough of FLOW’s bite-and-blow customer disservice.

I called the Office of Utilities Regulation (OUR) to find out how dissatisfied customers could file a class-action suit against Liberty Global. Many of us don’t seem to know that it was Cable & Wireless that bought FLOW, not the other way around. I suppose some sensible executive realised that FLOW was a better brand than sour LIME and retained that name.

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And Liberty Global bought Cable & Wireless. A Gleaner article published on Friday, March 31 reports that, “Large cable operator Liberty Global, the owner of FLOW, wants its regional businesses to generate more cash, and has set them a target of US$1.5 billion.” We had better watch out. Liberty come from carelessness. We might soon be paying far more for even less.

MY FAIRY GODMOTHER

Both the general counsel and the director general of the OUR were in a meeting. I left my old LIME number, which is now working. Believe it or not, bright and early Sunday morning, I got a call from FLOW. It was my fairy godmother who said that a technician would be coming to fix my phone later that day.

I suppose I should have been happy that, after a month or so, the service was going to be restored. Instead, I was outraged. It seemed as if I was being given preferential treatment because of my column published that same day, ‘FLOW’s stagnant channels’.

I asked about all those other customers who are being exploited by FLOW. When are they going to get back service? And I referred to a tweet in response to the column: “All across Jamaica, sounds of ‘um huh’, in agreement with @karokupa.” The technician did come and left this note: “I found the problem on the pole and repaired same. Please call me if you have any queries. Thanks for your continued faith in us.”

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Faith in FLOW? What’s faith got to do with it? FLOW is not a church. And many churches place a much higher premium on customer satisfaction than FLOW. They ensure direct access to God, who answers prayers.

According to the New Testament, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It seems as if it’s FLOW that has faith in us. The company seems to be hoping that in the absence of evidence that it is actually giving us what we pay for, we will stick with it until the end of time.

SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT

On Tuesday, my fairy godmother sent another technician to restore the channels that were temporarily off the air. The first question I asked was if the van was leaking oil. He said no. By the time he finished fixing the channels, there were patches of oil in the driveway. About a one-foot square! And talking of square, I must correct an error in last week’s column. I omitted ‘square’ in my summary of Einstein’s famous equation.

My ‘faith’ in FLOW didn’t last long. By Wednesday, there was a new problem. I had paid for a package on my old FLOW line that allowed me to make flat-rate land and cell calls to the US. When I tried to make a call, I got this message, “International calls are not permitted from this number.”

So now my options for making calls to the US were to pay extra from either my old LIME phone or my cell phone. How could this possibly be acceptable? After mi cuss two bad word, I called my fairy godmother. She promised to investigate the matter. Service was restored by Friday. Why should I need a fairy godmother?

That’s how I ended up calling the OUR. The director general returned my call and I followed up with an email in which I asked four questions: Can dissatisfied FLOW customers file a class-action suit against Liberty Global? If so, how? Are there any laws that protect consumers against utility companies that fail to deliver the services for which they are paid? If not, what is being done to put such laws in place? I haven’t got any answers as yet.

Then, I discovered that the following notice from FLOW does not tell the whole story: “Due to broadcast restrictions, we are unable to air the current programme on this channel. Please check your local listing to determine the availability of this programme on another channel.” You can certainly get programmes like ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’ and ‘Modern Family’ on another channel. But definitely not on FLOW! Digicel bought the rights. Right under FLOW’s nose!

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By the way, Digicel is purchasing its off-island capacity to provide Internet service from FLOW. Since the companies are wrapped up in bed, you would think they could be generous enough to include all their customers in the happy union. And allow us access to all programmes! But, no! It’s all about competition. And the biggest loser is the customer. It seems as if the OUR needs to set up a Special Victims Unit to protect us from both Digicel and FLOW.