Technology advancement in the field of Telecommunications over the last 2-3 decades is so vast that practically every human being in this world has become more and more dependent on some form of telecommunication tool in his/her daily life . In order to promote economic development and to reduce the gap of the digital divide broadband plans will have to be developed to increase availability and affordability.
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has continually been pressurizing all Governments to follow the path of providing their citizenry with quality telecommunication services at affordable prices to enable them to function efficiently.
The Yahapalanaya Govt of both the President and the PM have categorically expressed in their policies that they would strive to take Telecommunication services to the remotest rural areas at a very affordable price . But however the TRC does not seem to appear to be “Regulating” towards this Goal.
Expansion of infrastructure should enable everyone to access the internet without time constraints, there must be enough bandwidth for new offerings. Broadband services provide a continuous “always on” connection. Internet access has changed the way many people think and has become an integral part of people’s Economic, Social and Political lives. Unlike any other medium internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across geographical borders. Simply focussing on infrastructure is not sufficient. People need to get on-line whenever they need, they are certainly not concerned about the technologies used, it is simply to communicate and access information.
The establishment of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission under the Sri Lanka Telecommunications Act No. 27 of 1996 was to ensure that there is fair play by both sides, and to regulate the Industry taking into consideration the requirements and concerns of the consumers and the public. A greater degree of independence and autonomy is expected from a 5-member Commission. The Regulator should have a transparent decision making process and should give reasons for such decisions and determinations and they must be displayed in the website for the benefit of the public. Telecommunication Legislation focuses mainly on safeguarding consumer and public interest as well as national interest. Wide powers are available to the Regulator to regulate with greater oversight in “the interest of the public”. However, it is apparent that many provisions in the Act lay dormant for the past several years.
Transactions and Interactions via the Internet have become the most powerful mode of communication in the world, and hence it is vitally important to ensure that these services are made available to the consumers at a very reasonable and affordable price. However, tariff plans by the operators do not appear to be either reasonable or affordable or scientifically justifiable.
All operators provide their consumers, data packages which specify a limitation on what is called “Peak hours” (8.00am - 12.00 midnight = 16 hrs) and “Off Peak” hours (12.00 midnight - 8.00 am = 8 hrs) . There is no scientific proof or evidence provided either by the operators or the TRC as to how they arrived at this conclusion. Peak and Off Peak hour periods needs to be evenly distributed. In a certain data plan provided by an operator or user is given a free offering of 30 GB if he browses the Internet during off peak hours. What is the rationale behind this decision? No sane mind can expect a person to access the Internet from 12.00 midnight till about 5.30 am? Furthermore it is untenable under any law to force users to browse the Internet continually spending sleepless nights, because this leads to health issues.
Technically Peak hours should mean hours where a majority of its subscribers “use” the internet for their day to day transactions . We are all aware that there is what is known as regular office hours which is roughly between the period 8.00 am in the morning up to around 5.00 pm in the evening where a majority of the computers will be operational hence it will be near impossible to understand to an average mind as to how let’s say beyond 5.00 pm until midnight the majority of the computers will continue to be logged into the Internet!
The next grievance/anomaly is the issue that on holidays, Saturdays and Sundays as well the Peak and off Peak period demarcation remain. We are all aware that on Sundays which are Public, Bank and Mercantile holidays to all Govt Institutions, Private sector establishments, Banks which are closed and therefore Internet accessing simply reduces to the barest minimum. In this background there is absolutely no possibility of establishing a firm scientific explanation or justification as to how one could have Peak Hour periods on these days. We all know that all over the world in the field of Telecommunications, Holidays and Sundays are considered totally Off Peak hours because there is a plausible scientific explanation behind that decision. If I may quote Vodafone NZ data plans , peak is 7.00 am - 7.00 pm, and off Peak from 7.00 pm - 7.00 am from Monday to Friday and thereafter all “ national and public holidays and weekends” are considered “off Peak”. But here in Sri Lanka we do not operate in that manner at all. Regulator should not have pre determined views, it is important to know the criteria followed to determine the tariffs and Peak hours? Has the Regulator carried out an audit to monitor usage patterns in relation to Peak and Off Peak periods? The Regulator cannot fulfil its Legislative responsibilities without public participation? Has the Regulator obtained the views of the general Public before its determination on tariffs and Peak/Off Peak periods?
If so, this determination of the Tariff and Peak/Off Peak period demarcation with scientific and justifiable explanation must be posted on the website of the TRC for the benefit of the consumer and the public in the name of transparency and also as a sequel to the promulgation of the Right to Information Law.
The third grievance is the charge of Rs. 250 per GB for replenishing data quota exhausted. It simply baffles people to understand as to why a user should be charged Rs. 250 per GB when the actual charge is around Rs.50? This is certainly not providing telecommunication services at an affordable or reasonable price.
The Telecommunication Industry is an ever changing and evolving Industry, where the TRC needs to survey all moves of the operators on a day to day basis. Therefore it is extremely vital that, In order to regulate, you need to ascertain the views of the consumers and the public which I feel are cardinal because they happen to be the users of the Telecommunication services provided by the operators, hence the only legitimate process available to the TRC to do this is to regularly have public hearings as per SC 12 of the Sri Lanka Telecommunication Act.
Hence it is incumbent on the Commission to provide a platform for the consumers and the public to discuss openly their concerns which cannot be ignored by the regulator in determining a tariff/service quality standard. I am of the view that for more than 10 - 12 years we have not had a public hearing summoned by the TRC, hence in the absence of a public hearing how successful has the TRC been, in their principal function of “Regulating” is the question that we have for the TRC.
As consumers we are in a quandary as to the manner in which the TRC conducts its role and therefore, we urge them to take cognizance of the foregoing and initiate a public hearing in terms of the Act and facilitate the gathering of relevant concerns of the public which will eventually guide the TRC in its determination. The TRC should also invite (as done in other countries) experts to give evidence on relevant issues which would greatly facilitate its decision-making process. We feel it is time to revisit these tariff plans and adjust accordingly for greater public good as well as to facilitate economic development.
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