Business

Addressing telecoms issues through dialogue

The telecoms regulator met with its licensees in Lagos, last week, to gauge the feelings of the operators. While this led to revelations of various issues leading to the exit of many players, both the regulator and the licensees agreed that continuous dialogue would help the industry in resolving its issues. SAMSON AKINTARO reports

From underpayment to non-payment for interoperator deals, telecoms operators licensed by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) minced no words as they poured out their grievances to the regulator at a meeting tagged Talk To The Regulator (TTTR), which was held in Lagos, last week. From the complaints lodged mainly by the small operators, especially the Value Added Service (VAS) providers and the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), it was obvious that the relationship between small and the big players, which are the GSM operators, have not been cordial. More so, the regulator, as the industry umpire, said it had also observed the exit of some operators in recent times, which was one of the reasons it convened the meeting to ascertain what the problems were. While the issues were brought up by the affected operators, it became clear that, indeed, the industry could do better with consistent dialogue and strategic regulatory interventions.

Fear for small operators

Setting the tone for discussions at the forum, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) expressed worry over the poor state of many companies operating in the telecommunications sector, especially, the small ones. This is even as it disclosed that between 2018 and 2020, a total of 27 telecom operators have returned their licences to the regulator as they cease operation. While the GSM operators such as MTN, Airtel, Globacom and 9mobile, may be seen as the face of the telecoms sector, hundreds of other small operators are part of the ecosystem, playing in different areas of the sector. These include the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Value Added Services (VAS) providers, among others. According to the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof Umar Danbatta, many of the small operators are struggling to survive. Speaking at the meeting, the EVC stated: “We are very much aware that not all our licensees are doing as well as they ought to be doing. Several licensees are struggling to pay their staff, many are unable to comply with basic licence obligations, several are defaulting in the payment of their annual operating levies (AOL), and the level of interconnect and other inter-licensee indebtedness is still unacceptably high.” Lamenting the poor state of some of the licensees, Danbatta, who was represented by the Executive Commissioner, Stakeholder Management, Mr. Adeleke Adewolu, noted that the industry could only achieve the national interest objectives set out in the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS), the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020-2025) and other policy instruments if most of our licensees are operating at optimal strength. He said this was why the Commission organised the forum for the operators to table their issues and to identify areas for regulatory interventions.

Licences returned

Making a presentation on the licensing trends in the telecoms sector, Deputy Director, Licensing and Authorisation Department of the Commission, Mrs. Emilia Nwokoro, disclosed that 27 operators have submitted their licenses in the last three years. According to her, six licenses were returned in 2018, four returned in 2019, while 17 companies returned their licences in 2020. While noting that the return of licences by the operators may not be unconnected with operating challenges, she said the forum was to allow the remaining players to voice out their challenges so that solutions could be worked out for the benefit of all.

The issues

Some of the operators who spoke at the forum, especially the VAS providers, blamed the mobile network operators (MTN, Globacom, Airtel, and 9mobile) for their woes.

According to them, the MNOs have been short-changing them in VAS revenue sharing, which is why many VAS providers have shut down. The VAS operators render services such as caller ring back tunes, health tips, daily motivational quotes, sport/entertainment news and the likes, which are delivered to mobile subscribers and the subscribers are charged through deduction of their call credit. However, in sharing the revenue, they said the MNOs would first deduct 20 per cent as a fee for recharge card printing and annual operating levy (AOL), before sharing the remaining as 60/40, which is affecting their business, adding that they also pay AOL from the same revenue that the MNOs have deducted AOL from, thus making double payment to the regulator. Specifically, Mr. Babarinde Paul of Next-Gen, a VAS company, said the indebtedness by the GSM operators had crippled many VAS providers as they are unable to continue to run their business as the big players refused to pay them for businesses done in the past. He urged the NCC to intervene to revive the VAS businesses. Although some of the GSM operators had their representatives at the meeting, the allegations of indebtedness were not countered by them.

Continuous dialogue

While taking note of all the grievances expressed by the operators with a promise to intervene in all of them for resolution, NCC emphasised that continuous dialogues between the regulator and its various licensees are central to finding lasting solutions to issues negatively impacting the licensee’s compliance with extant regulations and challenging the growth of the telecoms industry. According to Danbatta, the objective of the forum was to get direct feedback from licensees on how the Commission, as a regulator, was meeting licensees’ expectations. The programme was also designed to identify areas for regulatory improvement, highlight areas where licensees are defaulting as well as address critical industry challenges undermining full accomplishment of the set objectives for consolidating the gains in the telecoms sector. “The Nigerian Communications Act (NCA, 2003) invests the NCC with powers and responsibilities for the regulation of both the technical and market-related aspects of telecoms infrastructure and services in Nigeria. We consider our role as a regulator very vital to ensuring industry sustainability because NCC considers consultation as the lifeblood of regulation” the EVC emphasised.

Last line

While the licensees have tabled their challenges before the regulator, especially the reasons many small operators were shutting down, the onus is now on the regulator to take actions that will address the issues. The industry awaits strategic interventions that will not only address the concerns raised at the meeting but also nip indebtedness and other unwholesome practices among the operators in the bud.

 

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