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Nnamani: Telcos should be part of CBN’s infrastructure funding

Engr. Ikechukwu Nnamani was recently elected as the President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON). In this interview with SAMSON AKINTARO, he speaks on the agenda of the new executives for the telecoms industry and the need for more funding for telecoms infrastructure among others

 

 

 

Kindly tell us more about ATCON, its position, and its roles in the Nigerian telecoms landscape.

 

ATCON is the premier telecom and ICT association in Nigeria with membership of over 160 companies at the moment. We currently have new requests for membership being processed.

 

Our class of membership cuts across eight types of services providers namely telecom operators, equipment vendors, valueadded service providers, infrastructure service providers, equipment manufacturers, internet service providers, telecom and ICT consultants, and FINTECH/e-commerce operators.

 

We have over the years engaged with the relevant stakeholders in the country to move the telecom and ICT industry forward. Our interventions have helped advanced the telecom and ICT services in the country, consistently leading to an increase in the contribution of telecom and ICT to Nigeria’s GDP over the past decades.

 

The recent financial report indicates the telecom and ICT industry contributed NGN2.3trillion (about 14.3%) to Nigerian’s GDP in the second quarter of 2020. The investment in the telecom and ICT sector has grown to $70 billion by end of 2019 with $32 billion of that investment happening in the last five years.

 

ATCON members are responsible for these gains. We have helped extend telecom and ICT services across the country especially the rural and underserved areas of the country as well as promote broadband penetration across the country.

 

We have participated in virtually all crucial requests for stakeholders’ intervention by the regulators and government agencies including the recently concluded 2020 to 2025 national broadband plan and the Nigerian national cybersecurity policy documents.

 

We have over the years been blessed by having the best hands in the industry as our Presidents. This includes Engr. Ernest Ndukwe, the former Chief Executive Officer of Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and current Chairman of MTN Nigeria; Engr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, the current Secretary to the State Government of Akwa Ibom state; Engr. Titi Omo Ettu; Engr. Lanre Ajayi; and the immediate past present Engr. Olusola Teniola. The leadership qualities of these individuals have laid a solid foundation for the association that has continued to grow stronger each year.

 

 

Many problems bedeviling the growth of the telecoms sector have been identified over the years. Many of them are yet to be resolved, perhaps because of the approach employed so far. Such challenges include forex, RoW, vandalism, power, multiple taxations among others. Do you have a new approach to solving these problems for more prompt results?

 

The problems listed have bedeviled the industry for some time but with the interventions, we have been doing over the years, there has also been some progress in all the areas listed.

 

 

For instance on the ROW challenges a lot of progress has been made with the recent confirmation by the Hon. Minister of Communications and Digital Economy that several state governments have agreed to waive the ROW fees or reduce it to N145 per linear meter.

 

That is progress, which will ultimately lead to the rapid deployment of fibre transmission infrastructure across the country. Some progress has also been made with respect to  vandalism with the work done so far on the classification of telecom and ICT infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure that will be protected. Progress has also been made in the area of multiple taxations. Unfortunately challenges still exist with power supply and forex, but we will continue to work on those.

 

Some of the challenges we can address with more advocacy and interaction with the relevant government agencies, others we as service providers may need to readjust some areas of our operations to overcome. For instance, in areas where vandalism cannot be prevented, putting in place a redundant network infrastructure so there is the availability of service at all times is the one way to go.

 

This however requires funding. It is for this reason a major area the new exco will be focused on is appropriate telecom and ICT industry financing. We have already started the engagement with key government agencies of how the right mix of equity and debt financing can be made available to the telecom and ICT sector including our request that part of the proposed infrastructure fund being put together by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should be allocated to the telecom and ICT sector.

 

We have also called for the establishment of a special bank for the telecom and ICT industry similar to what we have in Bank of Industry, Bank of Agriculture, etc.

 

 

 

As the leader of the newly elected executive of ATCON, what are you bringing to the table?

 

Thank you, the new exco will address three main areas; strengthening the secretariat for more efficient service delivery, strengthening the membership for growth and strengthening the telecom and ICT space for better service delivery to the subscribers. We will modernise the operations of the secretariat to be in line with present-day realities for efficient and cost-effective operations.

 

Covid-19 has revealed that organisations should be structured for remote operations when it becomes impossible to work in a physical office location. We will be upgrading our secretariat infrastructure to ensure operations and meetings can happen remotely including future AGMs if needed.

 

We will also ensure the secretariat staff are well trained and equipped to be able to handle the changing and progressive nature of membership and the industry in general. About two years ago, we developed a financial sustainability plan for the association and so far the implementation of the plan has made the association financially stable and in a good place financially.

 

We will continue with the implementation of the plan. We will place a lot of emphasis on signing up a new membership for the association and also ensure we have events and activities that promote the businesses of our members.

 

We will engage with the various regulatory and government agencies both at the state and federal level to ensure our members’ needs are met and that there is an enabling environment for the efficient and cost-effective delivery of telecoms and ICT services in the country.

 

Our engagement will be firm but non-confrontational to ensure success. We will also encourage corroborations among our members so there is harmony in the industry and progress for all stakeholders.

 

We will be introducing some new membership benefit packages to ensure our members get the best value for their involvement in the association. Our engagement will ensure that new classes of services are introduced to the subscribers at affordable rates while not compromising on the quality of service

 

ATCON as a body has both big operators and small ones that are struggling to survive. How do you intend to lead the new ATCON Excos and activities to help small operators weather the storm and the big ones to do better?

 

We have always focused on creating a cordial environment where all the service providers irrespective of their size are able to meet and interact on the challenges facing the industry.

 

Every year we organise several stakeholder engagement events where CEOs and top management of the various organisations meet to discuss and review industry pressing issues and how best to work together.

 

These meetings and interactions have helped bridge the gap between the smaller and bigger telecom operators and several joint projects have been initiated at these events.

 

The industry is an ecosystem where we all need one another and partnership among service providers will continue to be promoted under the new exco.

 

What can you say about the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) bill that has been waiting to be passed into law for many years now?

 

We commend the effort that has been put into making the CNI a reality and truly appreciate the efforts of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy as well as the Nigerian Communications Commission in this regard. We believe the bill will be passed into law in the coming months.

 

Before now, you were already part of the ATCON executive body but now you will be leading the team as the president. How would   you be able to handle this demanding task without friction with responsibilities to your companies?

 

As you noted I have been on the ATCON Executive Board for several years both as a coordinator of the telecom operators sub-group, as well as the 1st Vice President, which was my last post before being elected president. All this time I have handled the responsibilities of my companies without issues and challenges.

 

The same process will continue even now that I am President of our great association. Remember we have a secretariat which is responsible for the day to day running of the association and we will strengthen it for more efficiency. I also have a strong team in the current exco and they will provide needed support. Historically ATCON has always been run without dependence on a single person and that will continue even during this new exco.

 

Nigeria is currently working on many projects particularly, broadband target and the digital economy agenda, how much do you think ATCON can support these?

 

ATCON has been part of all these projects from conceptual stages once the regulator and government agencies involved bring the initiative to the notice of ATCON. Our opinion and suggestions have always been sought in the development of the operating policies and framework for these projects and we will continue to do so.

 

Are there odds against these agenda that you can identify and what would be the way out?

 

We have provided our opinions and suggestion to the relevant authorities and will continue to do so using the official channels given for that purpose.

 

In recent times, telcos, under the aegis of ATCON, appear to have been working more collaboratively with Federal Government agents in the sector. How do you intend to sustain this momentum and even take it to a new height?

 

We have realised that a constructive engagement with the relevant government agencies helps to reduce friction  and ensure that areas of disagreement on any policy or guidelines are resolved in a timely manner. We changed our approach in engaging with the government from being confrontational to cordial meetings where we point out the socialeconomic benefits that having a robust telecom and ICT infrastructure in the various states brings to the people of the state. This has made the state government to now see telecom and ICT service providers as partners in the provision of dividends of democracy to the citizens and who should be supported to establish services in the various states. This has been a win-win for all parties involved.

 

According to a recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics, there are indications that there is a saturation of telecoms access in some parts of the country despite many other areas lacking access to the infrastructure, how can we strike a balance in this area?

 

The reason for this is that some areas are not economically viable for the investment needed to provide service to those areas. What happens globally in situations like this is that the government steps in and supports the operators ready to offer services in locations that are not commercially viable. This can be in the form of subsidies, tax breaks, seed funding, etc. The NCC under the USPF has some provisions to finance the establishment of telecommunications services in rural and underserved areas.

 

Who are the stakeholders you intend to work with to further position ATCON as a key driver and shaper of telecoms narratives in the country?

 

We will work with all our members that cut across all sectors of the telecom and ICT space. We will also work with the various regulators and government agencies.

 

The telecom and ICT Press and Media have always been partners with ATCON in putting out accurate information on the happenings in the industry and we hope that will continue.

 

What are you promising subscribers in the next two years on behalf of other operators?

 

Better quality of service at a cheaper cost. New classes of service will also be introduced.

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