Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Before New NCC Chief Settles Down 

The executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Aminu Maida
The executive vice chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Aminu Maida.

Before he settles down for the task ahead, Aminu Maida should take stock of what baggage he is inheriting on the job.

He should not be emotionally carried away with the retinue of Nigerians, including insiders at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), who will send goodwill messages and make spirited moves for handshakes to scurry his favour and be in his good books.

He should know that there are hurdles ahead for him as the executive vice chairman (EVC) of the NCC.

By now, he must be undergoing a series of briefings and advisory from both solicited and unsolicited quarters.

He must be wary of what he swallows from these people. Some may be very genuine while some others are likely to be mere charlatans and soothsayers. 

The NCC is not a run off the mill organization for just anybody and it is also not just a foremost telecommunications regulator, but an institution that tells the Nigerian story, and for the people of Nigeria, their investments and what he does there will possibly tell the story better tomorrow or ruin the chances of young people entrusted with responsibilities.

So, as he begins the journey into the future, he must take into account the shift in the responsibilities on him as a younger generation entrusted with this 

difficult assignment and we expect him to make a difference to justify the trust of those who recommended him to the President for the job.

Even though this is not the time for long speeches as the task ahead is huge, he addressed senior management staff on Tuesday, October 17, 2023 and summarized his goals for the commission and the need to ensure that strategies focus on ensuring all Nigerians have access to affordable, reliable broadband services.

He said broadband was the blood that will sustain the much talked about digital economy agenda of government 

and a good broadband infrastructure (fiber) diffusion across the country is key to making the quality of service in Nigeria comparable to other parts of the world. 

He was quoted as saying that “this will rely tremendously on the decisions that staff take and those they fail to make as people working for a regulator.”

He said his position is in line with the vision of the Federal Government and the Minister of Communications, Innovations and Digital Economy to advance the nation’s digital transformation agenda. 

This includes but not limited to the training of three million Nigerians in digital skills, job creation and broadband penetration.

Improved resource management in administering spectrum, numbers and licenses are also vital to the realization of the digital agenda and to achieve this, effective management, monitoring and audit to meet the dynamic nature of the landscape    are within the purview, Maida said adding too that “the Commission should strike a balance to allow its licensees to push boundaries through innovation to meet emerging needs.

“The commission must therefore support innovation and competition while promoting the rollout of emerging technologies and a level playing field for all player”

While acknowledging politics in the workplace and the resultant bad blood, the new chief regulator admonished staff to let go of the past and concentrate on the work that lies ahead.

The EVC spoke well. But as part of his assignment, the new helmsman should look into statistics that were bandied by his predecessor as most of it was unverifiable because they were churned out without recourse to scientific analysis.

Some of the unresolved issues at stake include the recurrent and never ending Right of Way (RoW) crisis which hangs on the regulator and operators like albatross.

It has refused to find any workable solutions since the National Executive Council (NEC) adjudicated on it on March 21, 2013.

Tried as much as his predecessor did, solving RoW issues remain nightmares to all.

Network operators face difficulties to deliver quality service in parts of the Federal Capital Territory in Abuja, as a result of refusal of permits to rollout telecoms infrastructure in Abuja and environs. This has been so for nearly seven years. A 5G licencee in its attempt to flag off rollout in Abuja got very uncomfortable and discouraging invoices before they could loop their infrastructure and because of this, 5G services in the seat power are unpopular and only a very insignificant part of the population and residents have access to the service.

That applications for such permits have remained unapproved for nearly seven years is not so much because there have been no efforts but perhaps those efforts held no water and so operators have been unable to build new cell sites in Abuja for this long.

There are also reported cases of several states with frosty relationships with the operators thereby hampering service delivery. Your predecessor opened a series of talks with the Nigerian Governors Forum on the subject and ended up with pockets of successes.

Maida should return to the NGF for more consultations with a fresh vigor if anything could come out of this.

Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON)Gbenga Adebayo listed the other day a myriad of challenges 

plaguing the sector saying they were numerous but advised Maida to “concentrate on stabilising the telecoms infrastructure, issue of service quality, high cost of operations in the telecoms sector, access to scarce foreign exchange (Forex) among others.”

Adebayo wants telecoms services to “be given priority in accessing Forex because the sector is highly foreign exchange dependent.”

He listed Right of Way (RoW) and multiple taxation as some of the biggest headaches to operators.

Telecommunications is not yet listed by government as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) as this is one nightmare too many for the sector.

Although, Maida is already singing the songs of Communication, Innovation and Digital Economy Minister, the EVC must not loose sight of the independence of the NCC even when nobody is asking him to be combative but should not be an appendage of the Minister whose roles begin and end with policy issues and their implementation if there are any.

His predecessor was an administrative wreck as he was caged by his Minister and in the process regulatory activities went to bed by midday and while this went on, not much came out of the NCC for a better part of three years apart from the 5G charade which was midwifed by the Minister then primarily for grandstanding and to score cheap political points.

And now Network operators are agitated and frustrated by Deposit Money Banks (DMBs)inability or alleged refusal to pay the N120 billion debts owed operators for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data(USSD) for banking services on bank apps that ride on the network operators platforms.

The operators have served notice of court processes to recover their moneys.

This should be a source of worry to the EVC.

There is believed to be political interference in the lingering USSD matter especially because no operator has mustered the courage to cut off the banks for a breach of the commercial agreements reached with telecom operators because “when they ( banks) didn’t pay, it was appropriate to just withdraw the service. But because, there was political interference, nobody could enforce those commercial terms” Adebayo, Chairman, Association of Licenced Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) lamented in an interview recently.

“So, when you open commercial agreement to political interference, you get into this kind of problem. That is why we say emphatically that some issues, including price review, should be left to market forces, not to be determined by government, because it is not sustainable.”

Adebayo is consoled in a way saying “when ALTON met with the Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, Dr. Bosun Tijani, recently, “the minister was sympathetic to us and stressed that if parties behave as responsible as they should be, the matter shouldn’t reach this level. It should have been resolved long before now. He agreed to take it up. ”We are waiting 

Early in June 2023, telecommunications operators served notice of disconnection of USSD on banks but despite a tripartite arrangement made up of the banks/CBN, the NCC and telecom operators, no head way was reached.

There were insinuations then that the network providers were not cooperating, so the EVC has a role to play by bringing in new perspectives especially coming from the financial services sector.

His predecessor carried out advocacy on financial inclusion, but it was not clear if he had a sufficient understanding of the subject and so the new boss should revisit this and harmonize his ideas of financial inclusion and align it to the campaign on digital economy.

Mobile Network Operators (MOs) have blamed the ongoing deadlock between banks and telcos on extraneous influences and undue interference.

This lingering issue has been on since 2019, and revolves around the alleged refusal of deposit money banks to settle their outstanding fees for USSD services provided by telecom operators, resulting in an accumulated debt of nearly N120billion.

Collaborative efforts by regulatory bodies, the CBN and the NCC to mediate and resolve the dispute, have failed as the banking institutions have remained adamant towards the payment of these debts. The EVC should review this situation and conduct other means and prevail on ALTON to step down the court option and resort to arbitration or Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) on the way forward because litigation will not be to the advantage of anybody and if the operators disable the USSD pending the outcome of the court processes, Nigerians who are already used to the service will be the sore losers. And that will be a big shame.

Sonny Aragba-Akpore
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