Director of Public Affairs at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Mr. Tony Ojobo, in Accra, Ghana, shares with Segun Oruame and Anthony Nwosu, IT EDGE NEWS, his worries and optimism on Nigeria’s telecom sector. He says the size of the market is sufficient enough to mitigate any investment risks but government can still do more to boost business confidence.
Operators are complaining of inability to source FOREX to fund equipment import and also complain of difficulties in even repatriating their earnings. This must be impacting on QoS and generally on investors’ confidence – what is the NCC doing to get government’s intervention?
Well, it’s not only in the telecom sector. Telecom is only part of the ecosystems of the Nigerian economy. The Executive Vice Chairman of the commission has argued that telecom should be on a priority list of the Central Bank of Nigeria. I know the commission is looking at having a meeting with the CBN and Ministry of Finance to find a way of providing badly needed FOREX allocation for the ICT sector. We are talking about quality of service which means that you have to deploy infrastructure and bring in hybrid equipment. Telecom equipment are mostly not manufactured here in Nigeria and if we don’t address the issue, we would have challenges that could impact negatively on the sector. I believe the issue requires some sort of understanding by sister government agencies and also, some level of advocacy by the stakeholders to make their position known. Not just the commission but stakeholders should express their concerns. Oftentimes, most people in government do not understand ICT and its dynamics. Today, without ICT, sectors like banking, broadcasting and several others will simply go under. I can confidently say that apart from agriculture which has a high capacity for creating jobs, ICT occupies a strategic position as well and impacts on all other sectors. It should be given priority. At this West African Telecom Summit holding here in Accra, we have just seen the introduction of an e-wallet system by Medallion that is usable by people and organisations from diverse backgrounds including farmers. The thinking in the commission is that there is a need to put ICT on the priority list of government in terms of allocation of scarce resources.
Quote: “[Roaming within ECOWAS] is beyond the regulator, it is about protocols. We can’t do anything without the agreement of various heads of states….It is something that requires understanding and it is a political decision.”
Is there any direct effort or appeal for the presidency to intervene in this matter?
The Ministry of Communication is aware of the challenges and I believe it’s already working on this.
There was just a single bidder for the recent 2.6 GHz spectrum in spite of high expectations. Is that to say Nigeria’s current economic downturn with the low business confidence impacted negatively and significantly on the auction?
What I can say is that NCC did all that was needed to be done. We have always made our bids transparent and articulated. We crossed our I’s and T’s.It wouldn’t be the fault of the commission if we didn’t get the projected numbers of bidders. When you talk about investors’ confidence, I don’t think that it is the function or role of NCC to get investors. Of course, as regulatory body we have shown that Nigeria can do it, we have shown that we are transparent and have shown the confidence that is necessary for the bid, there is no doubt on it. It is usually a strong mandate of any government and our government too to create an enabling environment – the lack of bidders isn’t to be at the doorsteps of the commission. The government should work on ease of business and availability of foreign exchange. If an investor is coming he will want to know if he can repatriate his funds. This is one thing the government should address. Let the relevant agencies of government and ministries that are in charge of attracting investment in the country address these challenges.
Is it the same factor that is affecting the ability of the Infracos to pick up?
As for the Infracos, we are tiding up that aspect. We have given them letters of offer, license documents and that’s not the reason they haven’t taken off. The reason is that before this time, they had provisional offer and there are conditions that have to be met but all of them are tidied up as we speak. Soon, they will commence business.
Infracos appear to also have challenges with fund to launch into the market, is NCC doing anything to assist them?
Well, I think in terms of funding, I don’t see how we can intervene into this, because we are not a bank nor a financial institution. But what we have done is that we have built up credibility. We have had successful firms that have emerged out of our own regulatory capacity. We can’t involve in the issue of negotiation of funding, what we can do is to create a level playing field and enabling environment for these businesses to thrive. When telecommunication firms approach banks for credit facility, the banks will not ignore them because they understand that they are in the biggest telecommunication market in Africa and thus will not be neglected. We have created a level playing field for the stakeholders and banks are aware of this.
There is increasing use of OTTs today. Is commission looking at regulating the OTTs?
It’s not on the table at the moment. We have actually carried out a research and the report is on our website. We conducted a study also. NCC is technology neutral, we don’t regulate the technology. When the issue of OTT came up and network operators were complaining that OTT is eating into their profit, we made them understand that it’s a liberalised market. The operators should be offering some value, what we have said is basically that service providers should look at how to deliver values. Service providers should look at customer loyalty; they should look at the way they address issues and challenges that their customers are facing and also look at the bouquet of services that they put on the table and also they should look at content. We can’t stop technology, people are coming up with ideas and there is no way that you can stop them. The OTTs are ideas and innovation that people are creating. People are looking at how to provide service and get money in return. Take for instance, how much are people paying to register on Facebook? But what is happening is that people are getting value and there is no way they can be ignored so people approach these platforms and pay for it. As a regulator, we are also looking at values that are really delivered to consumers. As a regulator we are here to ensure that consumers have value for money and service providers make money but we don’t regulate technology.
What is NCC doing about these Spam SMS and unsolicited calls by service providers?
We have given service providers up till 30th of June to clean up and tidy up all the loose ends. This is for both spam SMS and unwanted calls from the service providers. We have provided a short code which is 2442 which would be for do not disturb. People who don’t want to receive messages would be dialling that number asking not to be disturbed. Operator that sends unsolicited message would pay a fine of five million naira and additional N500, 000 for each day that money remains unpaid. The commission has been inundated with complaints by the consumers over this spam message. We have had a consultative forum and we have developed the guidelines. We are at the point that we are enforcing these guidelines and making sure that there are consequences when the service providers flout these rules.
Rural areas don’t make good business case, what is NCC is doing to open these areas to access?
We have the USPF which have carried out a study of access gaps and they have identified about 200 locations where they don’t have access. We are looking at roughly 40 million people! Those have also been identified. Recently we were in Kaduna state to talk to the governor over the issue of multiple taxation and right of way; he told us that about 60 locations in Kaduna state don’t have an access. With the USPF, there is intervention such as provision of infrastructures like base stations and in some other areas, satellites can be used. The USPF is working at addressing these gaps.
Quote: “Service providers should look at how to deliver values….We can’t stop technology, people are coming up with ideas and there is no way that you can stop them. The OTTs are ideas and innovation that people are creating. People are looking at how to provide service and get money in return….As a regulator we are here to ensure that consumers have value for money and service providers make money but we don’t regulate technology.”
About six years ago, we asked the then head of the NCC if the commission has reached the conclusion that landlines have no future again, what would say to that same question?
Landline is a technology; we allow the market to decide. You can’t really choose for the consumers. There are still landlines but the fact is that the world has gone mobile. Today-man wants his device to be his office; he can practically do anything with his mobile device. People have moved on with value in mobile devices. The landline we are talking today is stationary and the world has gone mobile, I feel that is why the demand for landline is declining. Landline isn’t delivering the kind of value the man wants today but it can deliver that of the family. I think it has to do with technology preference. The erstwhile VGCC was bought over by MTN but they are still providing landline services. This was also what happened to CDMA phones, it is about consumer preference. CDMA has limitations.
VAS providers are saying that they are not given breathing space to survive. Telcos are squeezing VAS firms out of the market. What is NCC doing about this?
The issue is that this market is a liberalised market. In order to deliver value to customers it’s all about competition. As long as that service provider has the license to provide that VAS service, as a regulator you can’t stop it. These telcos have unified licenses. If we have insisted that GSM operators should not provide internet service, you can imagine what Nigeria would look like. What we did was that we introduced unified licenses regime so that we can open up the market. The issue of revenue sharing between VAS firms came up, they approached the commission we tried to sort it. We are taking into account all the issues that was raised and the commission is looking at them as a responsive regulator.
Quote: “The commission is looking at having a meeting with the CBN and Ministry of Finance to find a way of providing badly needed FOREX allocation for the ICT sector. We are talking about quality of service which means that you have to deploy infrastructure and bring in hybrid equipment….The thinking in the commission is that there is a need to put ICT on the priority list of government in terms of allocation of scarce resources.”
Roaming is one big challenge even within ECOWAS with all the talk about regional integration. Is NCC doing something to encourage roaming at affordable costs?
This is beyond the regulator, it is about protocols. We can’t do anything without the agreement of various heads of states. The ministers will look at this and harmonise any regulatory agreements or arrangements. The law in Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and other countries in the region are different, so there should be harmonisation in areas of spectrum, licences and even tariffs. The heads of states has to agree on all these things. West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA) is looking at this. There hasn’t been much success here; it will require more of political will from the heads of ECOWAS states just like that of single monetary unit in the region. It is something that requires understanding and it is a political decision. What we do is that we keep supporting WATRA. Recently WATRA will be opening office in Nigeria and the agreement has been signed.
From the regulatory standpoint, what is going on with MTN fine, are they paying or are they not paying and why is NCC not taking full charge of the situation?
Well, the reason is that NCC doesn’t have a board and from the provisions in our law, if the commission doesn’t have a board, the minister takes over. For NCC to take that decision we needed to involve the ministry and the presidency in this. If there was a board in place it wouldn’t have lingered on and also the EVC cannot take such a huge decision without the approval of the board. That was why we involved the presidency. It is important that a board is constituted. As for the issue of the fine, the National Assembly at the plenary set up a committee to probe the issue of N50 billion and we are waiting for the report of that committee.