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Thursday, November 01, 2007

Quality of Service: Senate takes centre stage

Features of the week:

Obviously awake to its responsibilities, the Senate Committees on Communications and Commerce recently held joint one-day public hearing on the increasing poor quality of service (QoS) among telcos and specifically the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) operators in the country, reports REMMY NWEKE.

From Lagos to Abuja:

Penultimate Friday at the one of the rooms at the National Assembly building in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja, the long expected Senate public hearing on the increasing poor quality of telecommunications services in the country was held.

Although the event earlier scheduled to hold at the Tafawa Balewa Square (TBS) Onikan-Lagos on October 4, 2007 as announced by the representative of the Senate President, Dr. David Mark at the recently held two-day session of Africa Technology Congress (AFRITECC-07) in Lagos, via a legislative consultant, Mr. Davidson Oputteh in his address to the occasion.

He also said that the Senate was concerned over the increased rate of drop calls among all the telecommunications operators in the country and particularly on the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) networks.

However, on October 4, many Lagosians trooped to TBS without any sign of the committee only to hear later that it has been shifted to Friday, October 19 at the same venue, and was gathered much later to have been shifted to Abuja.

Worried by QoS:

The reason for the shifting was not immediately known as the Senate Chairman on Communications, Chief Sylvester Ndubuisi Anyanwu, recognised this fact and was mindful of it in his address. While apologising for the change of location and persistent postponement, he assured that the Senate has advanced plans to ensure that the public hearing is held nationwide, especially at the six geo-political zones of the country.

The keynote of event at the hearing was the position of the Senate as elucidated by the President, Dr. Mark, who said in his address before declaring the session open that there is no amount of excuse at this time that is acceptable to the House, especially when the operators would be smiling to the banks with their money while Nigerians who pay for ineptitude of their services lament.

Affordable Communications:

He equally used the opportunity to explained his position as the former Communications minister in the country of which the rumour has been making a round of being quoted as saying that ‘telephone is only for the rich.’

He clarified that he never said that but was concerned over the debt burden of the then Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL), mostly by government agencies and top civil servants, hence he declared that only those who can afford telephone services should have access to it in terms of being able to settle their bills as at when and where due.

He later declared the public hearing opened before departing to attend to other state matters, but not without reiterating the Senate position, saying that there is no acceptable excuse for the increased drop calls among the telcos in the country, noting that something must be done very quickly too.

Welcoming participants at the public hearing, Senator Anyanwu flanked by other top members of the Senate Committees on Communication and Commerce, informed that under the oath of public hearing, nothing said in the floor of the House would be used against the individual.

He, however, warned of applying unpalatable comments and testimonials against anybody or corporate organisations and enjoined them to air their views respectfully, especially since the session was live on national television stations.

CPC rates MTN low:

Opening the floor was the nation’s Consumers Protection Council (CPC) led by its Director General, Mrs. Ify Umenyi, who outlined actions by her council and lamented the inability of telecommunications operators to compensate subscribers as at when due and fond of disobeying consumer protection guidelines.

She cited a case in hand with the recent plan advanced both her council in collaboration with the telecommunications regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) only to be stopped by the court injunction granted the two GSM operators, namely MTN and Celtel.

However, MTN Nigeria was not kindly rated as the most arrogant telcom provider in the polity, which was equally applauded by the participants.

Unfortunately, when the time came for the telcos to make their presentations with the excuses by telco representatives that their chief executives were variously indisposed to attend the session.

Senate warns telco’s CEOs:

The Senate, therefore warned the chief executive officers (CEOs) of all the telecommunications companies in the country to desist from shunning it’s summon or face the wrath of the upper legislative house.

Speaking through Senator Anyanwu, the upper house expressed dismay over the inability of any of CEOs of telcos invited for the forum that were present, especially across the four Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) operators, namely the MTN, Globacom, Celtel and M-Tel.

Senator Anyanwu who presided over the public hearing stressed the importance of the CEOs of telcos, saying that it’s disheartening that they would be invited before the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and they would send representatives.

Operating licenses may be withdrawn:

He also sounded a note of warning that the experiment at the public hearing should serve as the last, because his committee is capable of dragging such unsubmissive CEOs to the floor of the Senate to face probe and could even go the mileage of suspending the licenses of defaulting telco’s, after about three warnings.

All the representatives of GSM operators at the forum, which was monitored in Lagos on African Independent Television (AIT) and Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), were shunned as soon as they introduce themselves as representatives with flimsy excuses that their chief executives travelled out of the country or just arrived last night.

Senator Anyanwu equally advised all the representatives to wait after the session so as to take a new date for them accompanied by their chief executives to appear before the committee, but insisted that they take enough note on the reports from the forum, because they must respond to them.

Seeking affirmation from CEOs:

He stressed that the emphasise on these CEOs being present goes beyond mere explanation of technicalities of their operations, adding that the Senate intends to get affirmation from them too on whatever would be arrived at.

He further asked the GSM operators to come up with a working document on how to improve the quality of service on their networks when coming for the special session after they have taken their dates.

The Senate, he pointed out would like to see a working document on how they intend to solve the issues at hand, especially on the quality of service, which he said must be signed before the Senate and at least to solve the problem before December this year.

Also speaking at the forum, the Executive Vice Chairman, NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, endorsed the position of the Senate and said that there is no reason why the chief executives should not be present.

He pointed out that the poor quality of service did not start today or a week ago but had persisted over three months, therefore, the telcos could not fane ignorant of the situation and should have done a lot to alleviate the problems and compensate subscribers of telecommunications in the country adequately.

Although he decried the dragging of NCC to the law court by two of the GSM operators over compensation, he expressed optimism that eventually the court injunction would be vacated to enable NCC continue negotiation on how best to implement the proposed compensation.

ATCON backs Senate:

Corroborating Ndukwe, President, Association Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Dr. Emmanuel Ekuwem, lamented the poor behaviour of the absenting CEOs of telcos, especially the GSM operators and thanked the Senate for giving them another opportunity to make their case.

Describing the behaviour as professionally gross-aberration, he enjoined them not to repeat such act, but retrace their steps and always make themselves available for the highest legislative organ in the country, even as he advised them to go to the capital market, if their challenges borders on fund so that they could generate enough fund to run their business and make Nigerians part owners.

According to him, if Nigerians are part owners, they would go all miles in ensuring that the security of telecom installations are not left only to the police or security agencies.

Insensitivity of operators:

Equally, telecom subscribers, particularly on GSM platform have decried the recent court order on the proposed compensation plan by NCC.

The compensation due to have commenced by first week of October was stopped by a court order following an injunction granted MTN Nigeria and Celtel Nigeria through a Federal High Court Ikoyi-Lagos, presided over by Judge Daniel D. Abutu.

Notice of direction:

Champion Infotel recalls that mid last month, NCC had given notice of its intention to issue directive to prevail on GSM operators in the country including Glo, to compensate subscribers on their networks following an increased rate of poor Quality of Service (QoS) across these networks.

The directive would mandate the operators to compensate the over 38 million GSM subscribers in the country, depending however, on the category of traffic parameters experienced.

A letter to this effect addressed to the GSM operators and dated September 19 and 20 respectively, signed by the commission’s secretary, Mr. Felix Odeoye, stated that NCC has been inundated with complaints from subscribers on the issue of poor and unacceptable level of quality of services across the telcos.

Responding to the notice, the two out of the three GSM operators took NCC to court on October 2, to restrain the proposed directive supposed to have taken effect as from October 7, 2007.

NCC stopped:

Presiding on the matter, Judge Abutu, ordered the suspension of the notice pending the hearing and determination of the motion on Notice dated 2nd October, 2007, “from carrying into effect the direction intended by the notice of intention dated the 19th day of September 2007.”

A certified true copy of the proceeding endorsed by the Chief registrar, Federal High Court Ikoyi-Lagos, Mr. F.E. Dokubo, was made available to Champion Infotel.

Noteworthy is that NCC letter, required the telcos to pay compensation to the subscribers on their networks on monthly basis as long as the quality of service lasted.

Proposed compensation plan:

According to NCC, there would be N50 per subscriber monthly compensation where there was 2 to 5 per cent traffic channel congestion and 5 to 10 per cent would attract N100 per subscriber per month and congestion level over 10 per cent, equally would attract compensation of N175 per subscriber.

The commission, also said, that it may consider further sanctions if the congestion above this threshold is found to persist for extended period of time without being corrected to the satisfaction of the regulator.

The present direction, the commission said, is in accordance with the provision of Section 53 of the Nigerian Communications Act of 2003.

Reacting to the court order, most subscribers alleged insensitivity of the telcos to their plights, mostly Celtel and MTN who took NCC to court.

Huge profits, poor services:

A Lagos-based businessman, Mr. Levi Ugbaja said the action of the operators was not surprising, as they have continued to make huge profits in spite of poor services, which they render to the consumers.

While commending the NCC for taking a serious action to protect the subscribers, he said the telcos action depicts that they do not have subscribers at heart.

“We can now see clearly that these operators are only interested in our money and not the services for which we are paying the money”, he said.

Equally speaking, bank executive, Mr. Kunle Adegoroye, told correspondent that it appeared the telcos were happy with the current trend of poor quality of services while misleading the public that they are working towards resolving the matter.

“For how long do they want us to wait before enjoying the services which we have paid for? It is obvious that they are going to court to continue the massive exploitation of the subscribers and they will never win,” he said.

Part of things to come:

Above all, the Senate says its not relenting as plans have been advanced to strengthen the regulator, according to Anyanwu, as they have identified areas to strengthen the NCC to enable the commission to efficiently perform its duties.

He said that his committee has advanced plans to introduce new laws into the regulation of the sector that would tackle complaints against poor telecommunications services by various operators. This, he said would be achieved by strengthening the powers of the telecom regulator to facilitate the application of stiff sanctions against any defecting operator.

Part of the proposed laws, he said, would make it mandatory for operators to refund subscribers on established cases of call drops and call terminations or in any clearly established situations of poor service delivery, adding that the Senate, is of the opinion that Nigeria telecom subscribers are not getting the best yet, in spite of the infrastructural challenges in the sector.

“Some level of responsibility on the part of operators could lessen the problem and provide subscribers with the minimum service quality expected anywhere … We’re working to ensure that refunds are made to subscribers as is the case in many other countries,” he said.

Even as the Senate is mindful of the peculiar challenges facing the sector including inadequate power supply and insecurity of telecom facilities at some locations and would strive to work towards alleviating them.

He, however, warned that these challenges should not be used as an excuse to “rampantly and consistently deliver low service quality resulting into loss of money for subscribers which tantamount to extortion since subscribers are forced to part with money for services not rendered.”

The Senate Committee on Communications, he said, is already studying the existing laws with a view to reviewing and advising the assembly on the creation of entire new laws to accommodate the dynamics of the industry.

“We are looking seriously at the law that created the NCC. At the time the law that created the of the NCC was made, it may be adequate but a lot of changes have occurred and change is constant. Now we are working at new laws to accommodate the growth of the telecom industry. We would be looking at laws that would accommodate some of the lapses we have witnessed such as laws that would encourage the growth of fixed lines such as tax holiday and duty waivers among other incentives,” he said.

Senate is keen:

The Senate obviously appeared keen to address these challenges as said by Senator Anyanwu, in that the regulatory environment has done well to bring in investors but lots of work still need to be done at regulating the providers.

“The NCC needs some strength to regulate because most of these providers are getting too powerful. Some of them are disputing some of the things the NCC is trying to do to bring sanity to the sector. We as the Senate would not accept that. We are going through a stage that needs the NCC to be more empowered to regulate well. The challenges have moved from regulating to bring in investors to regulating to guaranty the good health and continuous growth of the sector by ensuring all operators comply with the common rule on best practices. There are some providers who have completely refused to obey the law.

The NCC as a regulator, he said, is empowered to give instructions that must be obeyed. It also need powers to apply appropriate sanctions, when those rules are broken, sue and be sued.”

Senator Anyanwu expressed dismay that the NCC does not prosecute but only give directives that are disregarded at will by operators which has put the regulator in a good position to defend the rights of subscribers.

Conclusion:

While urging the telcos to withdraw their case against NCC, the truth of the matter is that NCC needs more powers and thank God that the nation’s Senate seems to have realised this based on the recent public- hearing on QoS, although the hearing came very late according to some industry analyst, its better to be late than never.

Equally important as revealed by one of the contributors at the public hearing was that no subscriber could actually take the telcos, especially GSM operators to court except NCC. In other words, subscribers can only sue NCC in form of complaints and whatever is the outcome depends on how NCC handles a given case.

Another point of note remains that the Senate has awakened and in fact should stay awake after coming this far.



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