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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Stakeholders commend NCC on six years of GSM

Features of the week:

Month of August means many things to several people, but for Nigerians the licensing of Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) operators, who adventently opened shops in August 2001, heralded showers of blessings for the economy, regulator and country at large, reports REMMY NWEKE.

In the beginning:

Ogbuefi Soporuchukwu, is a retired civil servant who has gone to his hometown, Awba-Ofemili in Awka North local government area of Anambra State in the Eastern Nigeria to settle.

For him life has not been too bad as he was able to take up on another activity of offering call services to his community. Thank God for the likes of Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, the Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and probably for immediate former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo for being steadfast in continuing with the probably only good legacy from the then Sanni Abacha regime.

According to Ogbuefi Soporuchukwu, telecom has contributed in making life in retirement a little easier apart from offering his contribution via operating a call center in a remote village, where telecommunications services are yet to take root. Basically, he said, there is no base station in the town, just about 200 kilometres from Awka, the Anambra State capital.

Hence, he was able to put up the call center based on special equipment called Yagi antenna, a receiver booster antenna introduced to him by a reverend gentleman who was serving in the community three years ago; through which he now offer telecentre services for his community, enabling the residents to be in touch with their loved ones outside the community and world at large.

All these would not have been possible without the likes of Dr. Ndukwe who guarded the deregulation of the nation’s telecommunications jealously and support of Chief Obasanjo in creating an enabling environment, politically for the non-interference of the government in the globally accepted transparent auction in year 2001 of the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM), thus paving the way for investors to thrive.

Today, Ogbuefi said, the outcome is that Nigeria has over 40 million subscribers and is still counting out of the estimated 140 million according to the National Population Commission at the last census exercise.

This, he noted, left about 100 million Nigerians still gasping for telephone lines, adding that the coming of the GSM, has given him and others who were wondering what to do on retirement a live-line.

Pass mark for NCC:

Assessing the industry and NCC particularly, key stakeholders in the industry, the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) and Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), gave the regulator an applauding pass-mark.

President, ATCON, Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem in peeping into the history of GSM in the last six years, commended NCC for what he called “carrying itself well against all odds.”

According to him, the regulator has not allowed itself to be used either by the operators or through undue influence by the government, noting that NCC was able to provide the enabling environment and encourage investment into the ICT sector, especially in telecom.

He implored the operators to embrace the capital market and become more intimate with Nigerians.

“The operators, especially GSM operators should be more Nigerianised by going to the stock market to allow for more Nigerians to have stake in their operations,” he said.

Equally, Chairman, ALTON, Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, also commended the industry regulator, the NCC, pointing out that the commission led by Dr. Ndukwe has so far done well, just as he traced the rapid growth in the industry to the right regulatory environment.

“If regulatory was a problem, the world players will not be so interested in Nigeria, but today, the world of telecoms, from vendors to operators are looking towards Nigeria,” he said.

He also said that the journey is still far as there is relatively large addressable market, and the government and public must do a lot more to protect telecom infrastructure and support the operators.

A Lagos-based telecom lawyer, Mr. Ihuefo Udeh, said the industry, has fared well but there is still plenty to be done, noting that within the last six years, Nigeria has recorded the highest penetration in teledensity of telecommunications services on the continent.

“We became like the bride to investors and that is why the South Africans have not let us rest since then,” he said, adding that doing business also became easier, and there has been great improvement in the way Nigerians live.

Beyond this, Mr. Udeh said there are still a lot to be done by the government and the operators in order to bring the nation to the euphoria it deserved as a primary telecom consumer nation.

“The government must continue to create the enabling environment for telecoms operations such as security, power, quicker approvals of rights of way, the operators on their side should also be anticipatory as they grow in order to take care of capacity issues,” he advised, stressing that this way, issues like the one we have at the moment (congestion) in Nigeria would not happen.

Mr. Udeh observed that NCC has done a good job by way of taking the industry to this enviable position in the comity of telecoms nations in the world.

“But like everything that is good, there comes a time when re-strategisation is needed in order to meet the present challenges posed by the dynamics which is unfolding in the industry,” he declared, pointing out that NCC has the requisite personnel that are above board, and they must realign their positions to the restrategisaton of the commission, for it to continue to be relevant not only in name, but indeed and powers as well as respect.

Future of telecoms in Nigeria:

The future of telecommunications evolution in Nigeria is on the Value Added Services (VAS), declared Mr. Adebayo, noting that Nigeria has taken a place of pride in the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) development across the continent and a mark in the world.

In addition, he said that the next step of development is to optimise the Value Added Service (VAS) in order to bring more offering to the subscribers.

“We are now going to a future of value added service, where telecommunications will provide platform for social services,” he asserted, adding that some of the VAS expected soon in the market place include eBanking, eLearning, eSecurity, eMotoring, eRoad Traffic, eCommerce, all riding on the infrastructure of telecoms.

He underscored that with VAS enthroned, the economy and social life of the country will benefit from these in the next level of development, just as he do not expect much rural penetration due to lack of adequate incentive to drive such investment by the government.

“I do not foresee much of rural penetration because not much has been done by government to provide incentives in making those areas attractive to commercial network operators,” ALTON chairman said.

He further advised the government to quickly readdress the rural telephony project by providing the right incentives for operators to go into those areas, instead of trying to execute the project by itself, which he noted is against the spirit of deregulation.

Equally, Mr. Udeh said that the future, is good as he looks forward to new entrants coming into the market to make it more competitive in winning the loyalty of consumers.

“At that stage, prices will come down as technologies would continue to improve. I hope we will soon get to that stage where we don’t need to carry four different phones for four different networks at the same time,” he enthused.

And for the chief executive, Telecom Answers Associates, Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu, in the last six years, the telecom sector has won some and lost some but on the whole “we fared better,” even as he did not loose sight that call tariffs presently is still high and service providers appeared to pay more attention to marketing than to engineering which often ends in turbulent weather.

He predicted that the nation is going into the rural telephony and if that is so, “it should be a positive movement especially as it has taken the whole lot of post-liberalisation life of the industry to get here,” noting that technology is shaping the future and Nigeria should not loose sight of that but take advantage of it.

Brief on GSM in Nigeria:

For the benefit of history, the journey of current mobile telephony began in 2001 by finding of favour with the GSM technology followed by the auction. This auction was globally applauded for its transparency, more so coming from Nigeria of all countries, having suffered greatly because of escapades of notorious fraudulent activities of some Nigerians known as 419ners.

And between August 5 and 6 the likes of now Celtel Nigeria, then Econet and MTN began commercial roll out of their services, alongside the crawling Mobile Telecommunications Limited (MTel) owned by the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL) now acquired in the name of privatization by the Transnational Corporation (Transcorp).

Two years later, the call for the Second National Operator (SNO) operator was made and Globacom came on stream and hit the market in August 2003.

Today, the rest is history as Nigeria prides herself as one of the fastest growing telecom market in the world, especially on mobile communications with over 40 million subscribers.

Progress and distraction:

In addition, the latest stage of the telecom sector, which is the convergence, commenced with the news that the leading telco, MTN Nigeria bought over VGC Communications for $75 million, about N9.6 billion, whereas 75 per cent of Multilinks, a private telecom operator (PTO) was acquired by Telkom South Africa for $280 million, about N35.84 billion, while CellCom was purchased by Zenith International Bank Plc for over N4 billion.

Till date, approximated nine telcos have been elevated to the next stage of licensing which is embodied in the Unified Access, with the likes of MTN, Intercellular, Boaudex, Starcomms, VGC currently owned by MTN, Dan Jay, Prestel and Multilinks with the latest entrant being ReltelWireless.

In the last eight months, for instance, NCC began the year with the news that it has offered a Unified Access Service Licence to the Mubadala Development Company, a Kuwaiti telco, followed by the pronouncement on the licensing of spectrum in the two Gega Hertz of Third Generation (3G) and 450 Mega Hertz in February which was concluded by March.

Preceding this was the proclamation on the need to stop the use of stolen handsets on GSM networks in the country, just as it donated some industrial books to four higher institutions as part of its corporate social responsibility, before the deteriorating quality of service heightened. Of course, NCC raised concern over this, urging the operators to take cogent actions including stoppage of promos to enable them focus on improving the quality of service.

However, it would be pointed out that the effort to bulldoze its way into getting 3G license by NigComSat Limited, was observed as distraction by majority of the stakeholders especially the industry watchers.

Timely intervention:

Thanks to the Federal Government led by Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’du for the wisdom and timely intervention, resulting in sticking to the initial committee report that NigComSat could only be licensed after privatisation exercise conducted under due process.

Above all the rule of law should be allowed to prevail if this sector would continue to make progress.

And like Dr. Ekuwem would say, “government have no business in business,” and in line with this was a declaration by the chief telecoms consultant at research and consultancy, BMI-Techknowledge, Rivonia of South Africa, Mr. Andre Wills, about six years ago; “Nigeria’s huge market should be an attraction to many operators who intend to penetrate the continent,” therefore both the government through NCC and stakeholders should endeavour to work towards sustaining the excitement in spite of any distraction whatsoever.

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