Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Undue criticism of NCC

Remmy Nweke

In the light of the dearth in quality of services among the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM), mostly in the last four months stakeholders seem divided over the causes, thus trading blames ignorantly.

This is in spite of efforts being made by the telecommunications regulator in the country, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)

Equally subscribers in the country have all of a sudden forgotten their experiences in the past six years, which saw mountains of kudos for the regulator and hailing of the revolution that has taken place in the telecommunications industry.

For some experts, the sudden turn of events seem natural to man as subscribers have been criticising both the operators and some even requested that they be crucified.

From then on it was as if nothing good had happened in the telecommunications industry.

It was firstly, the consumers that began the cry; the politicians quickly found a platform on which to rest their politicking the Nigerian way trying to impress all that all their calls for a probe into the telecommunications industry and the interest they seem to be showing for what is going on in the NCC was for the good of the Nigerian people.

Again, a new twist was added to the issue of quality of service; the Nigerian Communications Satellite Agency (NigComSat) which had been launched early this year to act as a transmission backbone to telecommunications services providers, those referred to in telecommunications parlance as last mile providers was failing in its core task of getting customers to hook on to its satellite services. Its business plan had not impressed its target market. Its claim that it could offer cheaper bandwidth and help last mile services providers offer better quality service had not struck any new cord in the operators.

Even government agencies, such as the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), who have been using the services of other orbital satellite providers such as Intelsat over the years had not seen the attraction in the NigComSat’s business claims.

Their officials who had been asked to patronize NigComSat by government had argued that for them to do that they had to change the ground equipment to align with the Chinese technology that the NigComSat offered. According to these government agencies, the cost of hooking on to NigComSat transponders was huge and they can only do that if government offered to provide the fund.

Thus, between the launch of the satellite organisation and the time Nigerian phones services quality got to their lowest ebb, NigComSat had not gotten a customer. “Nigerian businesses are not patronizing us, cried a marketing official of NigComSat during the NICOMM 2007 which just last October in Lagos.

This was the dilemma that NigComSat found itself when it decided to design a huge propaganda machinery that was focused on ‘deceiving’ the presidency and unsuspecting Nigerian phone users and a section of the Nigerian press that NigComSat was the answer to poor quality phone service. The bait was their argument that if the NCC provided it with a free GSM license it will offer cheaper and better phone services to Nigeria.

Phone users got hooked to the bait; the presidency which had initially decided not to grant NigComSat license based on the recommendation of its own technical committee reversed itself and ordered the NCC to grant NigComSat License.

A section of the House of representative which had been mandated to look into the issue of quality of phone service took the matter to a higher gear and went political to pursue an agenda which was partly NigComSat driven and also buoyed by efforts to throw mud at the NCC and its chief Executive Officer, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe through the contrivance of unfounded allegations in a bid to unseat him.

The Leo Ogor ad-hoc committee recommendations points to the political direction NCC traducers were willing to go to unseat the management. They recommended the reorganization and probe of the NCC because according to them the regulator was responsible for the bad quality of service.

In their bid to hang the NCC, they closed their eyes to the truth preferring to canvass half truths by claiming that the NCC was both the regulator and the operator, which must provide the answer for good quality service. Secondly, they recommended that the NCC be punished for an act of the Ministry of Communications and the presidency, which awarded rural telephony projects to the Chinese government and its companies; ZTE and Huawei. They also, in an attempt to deceive Nigerians, that the NCC was denying Nigerians good quality and cheaper phone services for disobeying the order of the presidency that license be issued to NigComSat.

But all these claims and allegations are contrary to the NCC many Nigerians and the international communities know before these months of deflecting the wheels of telecommunications development in the country, through undue criticism.

Unfortunately, while a section of the House of representative and a few others who bought into the venture are labouring to throw mud on one of Nigeria ’s best, the International community continues to pour ecomiums on the NCC and its Chief Executive, Ernest Ndukwe whom they continue to ask over to present the Nigerian model to emerging telecommunications markets.

Many have soon forgotten that the NCC whose board was constituted in 2000 by the Olusegun Obasanjo government with seasoned technocrats such as Ahmed Joda, former Communications Minister, Olawale Ige has been acclaimed as one of the best run public enterprise in Nigeria.

This has been attested to by the numerous awards it has received from local and international bodies. The NCC processes have largely been acclaimed as following the rule of law, transparency, fair play and accountability to its various stakeholders. Before the banking consolidation that came last year, the telecommunications sector was the most vibrant, purposeful, well run and beneficial to Nigerians and the government.

Perhaps a few statistics will suffice. In January 2001, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, came up with the auction model for Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) licenses in Nigeria . That process proved effective as its result was adjudged locally and internationally as one of the best in the world due to the high level of transparency with which the exercise was conducted. Three mobile networks - ECONET Wireless (now Celtel), MTN and Mtel, a subsidiary of Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL were successful after agreeing to pay $285 million each to obtain the DMI license.

So in August 2001, Econet and MTN rolled out their services. Later on, Mtel followed. However, in 2002, a fourth Digital Mobile Licence (DML) was issued to Globacom through another transparent auction process.

Other licensing auctions followed the transparent manner with which NCC handled the DML. These include the Second National Operator, SNO, granted to Globacom, Fixed Wireless Access, FWA, licences granted to 24 companies on Regional Basis, the Unified Access Service Licence, UASL, and 3G Licences granted to four companies.

Through the award of these licences, the NCC facilitated a phenomenal expansion of telephone line in Nigeria such that while it took 40 years (between 1960 and 2000) to achieve 700,000 telephone lines, though only about 450,000 lines were functional in May 1999, it took the NCC only seven years to achieve about 40 million (from 2001 and 2007), boosting teledensity from 0.4 to 24.

Before 2001, access to telephone was the exclusive preserve of the rich and mighty in the country. Prior to 2001, it cost as much as N100,00 to obtain a phone line provided by the licensed fixed wireless operators, while you could pay officials with as high as N150, 000 to N200, 000 to get NITEL fixed lines. Application for telephone lines, which were not available, could take over a year to process. Never forgetting the poor quality of service that attended the NITEL services with the notorious ‘all trunks are busy, please try later’ sound that came from the NITEL network.

But today, thanks to the GSM revolution, all that is now history. GSM phones can now be found in over 10,000 villages and cities, even in the remotest parts of the country. Both the lowly and the high have access to phone services, which has become affordable and accessible. With as little as N300 a GSM line can be acquired and with as little as N3000 a handset can be purchased.

Apart from the phenomenal growth in subscriber base foreign direct investments inflow has also continued to pour in, moving from their 1999 level of $50 million to their current level of $10 billion. Earnings to government from the sector have also risen geometrically to peak at over N300 billion, from licenses, taxes and duties.

The various operators have employed thousands of Nigerians and through its multiplier effect millions of Nigerians are now gainfully engaged in one form of enterprise or the other that is telecommunications related.

Today, Internet services are becoming available on even mobile phones, making it possible to transact a wide range of services formally only available using a computer device.

Successes in the sector over the past seven years have brought benefits to several other sectors of the economy. Such benefits include investment inflows, increased revenues to government, job creation, improved revenues to advertising agents, real estate agents, among others.

Many have attributed the success to the stable and internationally acceptable regulatory environment, which has allowed for a level playing field, competition, operation of market forces and transparent licensing regime. This is the position of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which sets global telecommunications standards.

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