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Telecoms: Leveraging national roaming for improved service

To address the issue of poor service quality and inadequate telecoms facilities, Nigeria’s telecom regulator is pushing for national roaming for operators to leverage available infrastructures for efficient service delivery. SAMSON AKINTARO reports

In the last 20 years, telecommunication in Nigeria has experienced a quantum leap from 450,000 connected lines in 2001 to over 200 million active mobile subscriptions. However, despite the rapid growth, there still exists a wide connectivity gap in terms of unserved and underserved areas. In fact, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had recently acknowledged that there were 217 access gap areas, which the Umar Danbatta-led team had, through regulatory efforts, reduced to 114. This explains why the Commission is vigorously pushing for national roaming, which refers to the ability of a cellular subscriber to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services, including data services, when travelling outside the coverage area of the home network, by means of using a visited network. With the release of guidelines by the regulator, the stage is set for another revolution in the telecoms sector.

The guidelines

The release of the guidelines for national roaming officially opens the floor for the telecom operators to explore the new window for connecting more Nigerians. In exercise of the powers conferred on it by Section 70 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 and other enabling powers in that regard, NCC said the guidelines were issued to give effect to the provisions of licences, which permit the licensees to enter into agreements to provide national roaming services in Nigeria, subject to the prior approval of the commission. Part of the procedure for national roaming as stipulated by the guidelines include that duly authorised service providers shall request and negotiate national roaming agreements with each other on bilateral and non-discriminatory terms. “A roaming seeker requesting for national roaming services shall forward a duly completed roaming request Form A contained under Schedule 1 of these Guidelines to the Roaming Provider. “Where the roaming seeker receives no response from the roaming provider within 15 days of its request, the roaming seeker shall immediately notify the Commission in writing, and the Commission shall take necessary steps to ensure the roaming provider responds to the roaming request,” NCC stated under the legal provisions of the guidelines. The guidelines also spell out other provisions such as Considerations for National Roaming Agreements; Dispute Resolution; Termination of Agreement; Provision of Subscriber Information, among other provisions aimed at ensuring smooth operation of the system.

Initial trial

The release of the guidelines for the full-blown rollout of national roaming service in the country followed a successful trial carried out last year.

As part of preparations to launch into the national roaming era, NCC had, last year, approved a trial of the system for two mobile network operators, MTN and 9mobile. With the approval, the two operators configured their networks for test and simulation for customer experience. The trial approval, according to NCC, covered a few local governments, designated as the national roaming geographic area, in Ondo State. Speaking on the approval, the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said the primary objective of the national roaming service trial was to encourage network resources optimisation among operators. He said this would lead to operational expenditure (OPEXoptimisttion and capital expenditure (CAPEX) efficiencies leading to freeing up of resources to expand mobile network coverage to unserved and underserved communities across the country, which will lead to improved quality of service delivery to subscribers. “The successful implementation of the trial will enable EMTS, subscribers, to access MTN network service within the National Roaming trial geographical area without the need for an MTN Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card,” Danbatta had said.

Benefits of national roaming

Industry experts have hailed NCC for implementing national roaming services in the country. According to them, national roaming has the potential of promoting seamless communication of subscribers as they will be able to roam on the network of other service providers where their service provider is unavailable or has limited network coverage, while there will be a noticeable reduction in network deployment costs when active infrastructure sharing is encouraged. Apart from having a noticeable reduction in network deployment costs, the telecom industry will also witness an acceleration in the take-up of broadband services and the gradual elimination of the rural-urban digital divide. To ensure that these benefits are realised, Danbatta had recently advised that pertinent issues such as Quality of Service, Mobile Number Portability, issues of fair competition, billing and reconciliation, appropriate roaming agreements, the extent of regulation required, and the need to continue to incentivise operators to roll out infrastructure in underpopulated areas must be addressed. The service is also expected to create an extra source of income for the mobile network operators, while they would be spending less on investment since infrastructure sharing divides the investment burden among the operators rather than being shouldered by a single operator. This also makes it easier for new players to enter the market and compete favourably as they would be able to ride on existing networks in areas where they are yet to deploy their infrastructure while promoting universal service provision.

Cost-saving mechanism

Apart from promoting seamless communication among subscribers by improving the quality of service, national roaming is also bound to bring down the cost of network deployment for the operators. According to NCC’s Director of Spectrum Administration, Austine Nwaulune, with national roaming, not only would there be a noticeable reduction in network deployment costs, but the industry would also witness acceleration in the take-up of broadband services and gradual elimination of the rural-urban digital divide. Nwaulune added that the Commission, in 2017, inaugurated an industry working committee to work out the procedure and modalities for imple-menting national roaming and active infrastructure sharing. “The past few years have seen the trajectory of the global telecommunications industry shift towards the implementation of cost-saving mechanisms which facilitate the effective utilisation of network resources for the provision of telecommunications services. “National roaming and active infrastructure sharing are two of such initiatives, which have been successfully utilised to achieve improved coverage, cost reduction, and the efficient utilization of scarce network resources by Regulatory agencies,” he said.

Need for more infrastructure

While the national roaming service seeks to alleviate the challenge of inadequate infrastructure in the telecoms sector, stakeholders have called for incentives to ensure the fast rollout of more infrastructure. According to the immediate past President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) Mr. Olusola Teniola, while the regulator is finding ways of mitigating the challenge, government would need to create more incentives for operators to roll out more quickly and help in reducing the challenges facing deployment across the states. He said: “There was a stakeholders’ forum not long ago where the issue was deliberateed on extensively. National toaming assumes that 95 per cent geographical coverage, because in its stopped simplicity form, you are making a call and suddenly the network goes down, so, the operator, under the national roaming, will be allowed to patch that call to go on another cell, which belongs to another operator.” He advised the Federal Government to work out measures with both the states and local governments on how best to support telecom operators to deploy infrastructure for improved quality of service. Other stakeholders have also blamed the infrastructure deficit in the sector on a lot of industry challenges, which have been slowing down deployment by the operators. These, they said, included poor power situation in the country that compels operators to deploy their generators to power their base stations, RoW issue, vandalism, theft of telecoms equipment at sites, multiple taxation and regulation, among others. The industry only has around 50,000 base stations to support the entire population of over 200 million Nigerians. Only 37,000 of the base stations are 4G-enabled BTS. Whereas, industry pundits have said 80,000 BTS would be needed for effective and seamless telecommunications services in the country.

 

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