What to do if you are unhappy with your telecom operator

If you believe that your mobile operator is overcharging you or sending you unsolicited spam messages and abusing your privacy, then make your voice heard to the authorities. The authority in this case, is the Communication and Information Technology Regulatory Authority (CITRA). Established in 2014, CITRA is responsible for overseeing the telecommunications sector in Kuwait, by monitoring and protecting the interests of users as well as service providers, and regulating the services of telecommunication networks.

Unlike many other government entities, CITRA listens and takes action on authentic and relevant complaints that it receives. They have a long list of consumer rights on their website, so if you feel your rights as a consumer are being abused by your telecommunication company, or have other genuine complaints against the service provider, visit the CITRA website at https://citra.gov.kw and file a complaint.

Over the years, the service providers in Kuwait have managed to refine and increase both the quantity and immediacy of spams they send. From early requests to download the latest ‘diggly tunes’ for a small fee, to the audacious click baits and regular inducements to subscribe to products for a hefty monthly fee, spam has grown to such an extent that they now provide the operators with a steady and lucrative stream of revenue.

It is true that we can take steps to block and prevent external spam, but there is very little we can do when spam originates internally from our service provider. While we are forced to tolerate the former, do we also have to endure the latter?

Kuwait was recently lauded for being among the top 20 improvers in the annual Global Competitiveness Index published by the World Economic Forum. The country moved up eight spots in 2019, to rank 46th among 141 countries in the index.

Despite this overall ranking improvement, on several components that constitute the national competitiveness ranking, the performance of Kuwait was worrying to say the least. For instance, in business dynamism Kuwait scored 56 to rank 94 among 141 countries; in innovation capability, Kuwait ranked 108th with a score of 30; and, in terms of competition in services, Kuwait ranked even lower at 109 position and a score of 58.7.

The lower ranking and scores, especially in providing competition in services, should be cause for concern to the authorities and underlines the urgent need to improve on these metrics. Competition in the marketplace is important not only for consumers and businesses, but also for the economic growth and development of the country.

In 1983, when public wireless telecommunication first arrived in Kuwait there was only one service provider in the country, the Mobile Telecommunication Company (MTC), which later rebranded as Zain. As the first mobile telecommunications company in the region and with its largest shareholder being Kuwait Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund manager, MTC enjoyed benefits and patronage that allowed it to monopolize the market, charge high prices and maintain a ‘take-it or leave-it’ attitude when it came to services.

By the late 1990s, everyone from parliamentarians to the local bakala man became convinced that the answer to Zain’s monopoly was to bring in a competitor. On cue, in 1999, the National Mobile Telecommunication Company (Wataniya Telecom) stepped in, as the country’s first privately-owned mobile operator. In 2007, Qatar Telecom acquired 51 percent of Wataniya Telecom and rebranded as Ooredoo.

Then, in 2008, not satisfied with having just two telecommunications company, the authorities in their infinite wisdom decided to add a third to the mix. Accordingly, Kuwait Telecommunications Company (VIVA) was incorporated to operate and manage the third GSM mobile network in Kuwait. Saudi Telecom, the largest mobile and land-line operator in Saudi Arabia is the largest shareholder in VIVA.

Having got into the spirit of increasing competition in the telecommunication field, there is apparently no stopping Kuwait. The country is reportedly looking to issue a fourth telecom operator license, this time to a virtual operator. Virtual network operators do not own the networks that they use to provide services, instead, they lease capacity by paying a fee and usage charges to existing operators. Industry insiders reveal that the company selected as virtual operator will likely be announced by February, 2020.

With four mobile telecom operators set to offer services from next year, to a population of less than 4.8 million people, one would expect competition to be cut-throat, prices for data and voice to be rock-bottom, and consumers to be grinning from ear to ear. Instead customers of all three operators are brimming with grief at the sorry mess that so-called ‘competition’ between firms that are largely owned by Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, has led them to.

Many economists, policy-makers and global guardians of the economy, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, have for long been serenading countries on the merits of competition and urging them to dismantle monopolistic practices from the business environment.

In Kuwait telecommunication field, we have managed to remove a market monopoly, but replaced it with an oligopolistic market structure. In an oligopoly where only a few select companies operate in a field, firms are free to collude among themselves to pursue monopolistic trade practices. This includes initially lowering prices to drive out or keep away smaller competitors, and once market monopoly is assured to rake in profits by charging higher prices to end-users.

Collusion among businesses is bad; it is bad for consumers, for the economy and, in the long-term, for the businesses involved. It is bad for users, as it leads to price-fixing that allow firms to charge relatively uniform higher prices for their products; it also results in less innovation and lower quality offerings, with more of the same mediocre goods or services being provided to users. Collusion is also bad for the country’s economy, as it drives down productivity, discourages foreign investment, curtails growth and encourages lobbying and corruption by a corporate-legislature nexus.

Eventually, collusion is also bad for the businesses involved because they stop growing, innovating, and competing to maximize profit for each individual firm by offering better products and services. They end up sharing in the total industry profit gained from skimming off customers. Ultimately, there is only so much that the consumer will be willing to accept, and the axiom that ‘businesses have to satisfy their customers to survive’, will eventually prove true.

Collusion is illegal in Kuwait and there is a Competition Protection Authority (CPA) to ensure fair and free competition in the country. But the CPA can act only in the face of explicit collusion; when the collusion is implicit, as in the case of companies in Kuwait, there is very little that the authority can do about it. Implicit colluding occurs in various ways, including through tacit understandings between the players involved, or through price-leadership, where one firm unilaterally decides to raise the price for its products and services, and others follow the leader in hiking prices.

Tacit colluding among the three telecom operators, and probably a fourth in future, is what we have in Kuwait today. Do not believe us; go compare the prices and offerings published by the three vendors on their online websites. You will notice that there is very little, if anything, to distinguish the services offered, or the prices charged by each operator. Incidentally, there is also hardly any distinction in the form and quantity of spam the telecom operators have made a habit of spewing on users.