In this piece, CHIMA AKWAJA takes a look at the myriad of challenges in the Nigerian telecommunications industry that the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) must address to ensure that the vision of the nation’s digital economy is realised.
Two decades after the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) opened the Nigerian telecom space to deep pocket investors to operate Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) technology, the industry has made giant strides, moving from 400,000 lines to 207 million mobile lines and adding nearly $80 billion in foreign and local direct investments.
Precisely on January 19, 2001, the NCC concluded a three-day hectic auction in Abuja that led to the issuance of Nigerian Digital Mobile Licence (DML) to three pioneer GSM investors. That singular auction which was acknowledged globally as the most transparent, has paved the way for today’s achievements in Nigeria.
Investments in mobile towers, VSAT turnkey networks, fibre optic infrastructure backbones, data centres, call centres, service centres have spread out across the country by communications service providers. Also, landing stations for international subsea cables went up from one to about five, changing the communications landscape and making voice, data, and video and internet services available at the fingertips of the Nigerians.
Today, a new horizon beckons for the telecom regulator as countries around the world move to digitize their economies and leverage the power and infrastructure of the telecommunications industry. Twenty years after GSM, a second generation mobile technology, Nigeria has stepped up to 3G and 4G and is on the cusp of 5G technology.
Telecom industry experts are of the view that though telecoms industry is dynamic, Nigeria has a glorious future ahead despite the challenges confronting it. They say continuous strong regulation and implementation of policies that encourage a level playing ground for all investors will drive the country into a full blown digital economy.
The executive vice chairman of Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta who concurred recently while welcoming the new Permanent Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, Engr. Festus Yusuf Daudu, stated that the effective regulatory regime put in place by the leadership of the Commission has resulted in increased deployment of infrastructure by telecoms operators, which in turn, helped to improve broadband penetration and other related service delivery in the telecoms industry.
The third generation (3G) and fourth generation (4G) base transceiver stations (BTS) deployment in Nigeria has increased from 30,000 to 53,460 in the last five years. Fibre optic transmission cables expanded from 47,000km to 54,725km in the same period, resulting in improved broadband/telecoms service delivery to Nigerians.
“The BTS, fibre optic cables and other related infrastructure are central to the provision of improved service experience for Nigerians by their respective telecoms service providers,” Danbatta said, adding that the licensed Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) are also expected to add 38,296km to optic fibre cables when they commence fully operations.
According to the EVC, as at November, 2020, active telephony subscribers stood at 208 million with teledensity standing at 108.92 per cent while active Internet subscriptions were 154.9 million and a broadband penetration of 45.07 per cent, among others.
On harmonisation of Right of Way (RoW) Charges, the engagement of the honourable minister of communications and digital economy with the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) has led to the adoption of a maximum of N145/m RoW fees in Kaduna, Katsina, Imo, Ekiti, Kwara and Plateau states.
The high RoW charges across different states of the federation have negatively impacted the required expansion and rollout of fiber optic across the country. Harmonization of RoW charges will increase investment and expansion of critical transmission infrastructure.
The passage of the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) Bill will classify telecommunications infrastructure across the country as critical national assets. This will improve the security of the infrastructure. Construction of roads with fibre optic ducts pre-laid will also reduce incidence of vandalisation and theft.
Addressing Consumer Concerns
A key responsibility of the ommission is the protection of the right of consumers. Recently, complaints of data depletion and wrong deductions of consumers’ credit were brought to the attention of NCC. To address this, the commission said it is tightening the noose through an ongoing forensic audit to ensure maximum protection for consumers.
The NCC has several platforms where consumers can be protected, informed and educated of their right to efficient and qualitative services and redress where necessary. The Commission also provides second level consumer complaints resolution services. On various initiatives undertaken by the Commission to ensure consumer protection and empowerment, he said introduction of the 622 Toll Free Line for lodging and resolving consumer complaints and the provision of the 112 Emergency number and activation of 19 Emergency Communications Centre (ECCs) have been very helpful.
Other such consumer-centric regulatory measures intervention include issuance of various directions to mobile network operators (MNOs) to protect the consumers from being short-changed, ensuring smooth transition of Etisalat to 9Mobile, consumer outreach programmes, introduction and enforcement of mobile number portability (MNP) as well as introduction of the Do-Not-Disturb (DND) 2442 to check cases of unsolicited text messages.
He further disclosed that the number of subscriptions to DND service has hit over 30 million as the service empowers Nigerians to be able to protect themselves from the menace of unsolicited text messages.
Nigerians have grappled with poor quality of service (QoS) since December 2020 due to movement of peoples across the country for the Christmas and New Year festivities. To address this, NCC says it is applying the relevant sections of the Quality of Service (QoS) Regulations 2013 to ensure regular monitoring exercises are carried out to ensure operators stay within approved threshold. “This has ensured the continual improvement of QoS delivery by operators’ inspite of the environmental challenges,” the regulator stated.
The national chairman, Association of Licenced Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Engr. Gbenga Adebayo says multiple taxation and regulation have been major challenges bedeviling the industry. It has affected the deployment of infrastructure and the expansion of telecommunication services.
However, the cvommission said it is engaging with relevant authorities to harmonize these taxes and regulations while the improvement of power supply to the sites of telecommunications services providers will have the dual effect of reducing operating costs and improving QoS delivery.
One of the key objectives of the commission as enunciated in the NCA2003 is to promote and safeguard national interests, safety and security. Therefore, the Commission is facilitating the provision of industry field data to Law Enforcement Agencies (LEAs) on Quarterly basis, to aid geo-location capabilities and investigations of telecoms related activities according to Danbatta.
It is also collaborating with National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) on integration of SIM Registration with its database –“To this end, we’ve issued direction on suspension of SIM registration in December, 2020. We are also providing porting statistics from the Mobile Number Portability (MNP) management records via the MNOs Clearing House. The Emergency Communications Centre (ECC) for reporting of emergencies using the toll-free line number 112,” the NCC boss added.
Driving Regulatory Environment
In recognition of the tremendous economic growth opportunities afforded by the deployment of broadband and its associated technologies, Danbatta said the Commission has positioned itself in government’s drive for a digital Nigeria, as contained in the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020 – 2025), the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (2020 – 2030) and the Strategic Management Plan (2020 – 2024) of the Commission.
“The Commission will continue to put in its best in the discharge of its mandates, especially in facilitating the deployment of broadband, which is central to diversifying the Nigerian economy and national development. Also, it is our belief that the communications industry, under the leadership of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, will experience more quantum leaps and retain its current leadership role in the telecommunications space,” he said.
Currently, NCC has a new SMP 2020-2024, which aims to consolidate on the achievements of the past two decades and more importantly, supports the FGN policy thrust of diversifying the economy through deployment of digital technology.
In his reaction, the Perm Sec commended the leadership of the Commission, acknowledging the upward growth attributed to the effective regulatory regime, the central role NCC is playing in the digital transformation of the Nigerian economy as well as the impressive contribution of the sector to the country’s Gross Domestic (GDP).
“I want to thank NCC for its contribution to the Nigerian economy so far. I am not exaggerating about the achievements of NCC, in terms of contribution to GDP and how NCC’s effective regulatory role has been helping the economy in so many ways,” he said, adding that NCC leadership also contributed to his success as the Chairman of the World Radio Conference in 2015.
Engr. Daudu apppeal the commission on the need for increased collaboration and teamwork with the Ministry, other agencies and industry stakeholders towards achieving the federal government’s objective of a digital economy. He also promised to support the commission in whatever ways possible towards achieving its regulatory mandates.