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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tariff hike: ALTON, NATCOMS on collision course


A collision is imminent for the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector as interest groups, ALTON and NATCOMS differ on plans to increase tariff, reports REMMY NWEKE.

Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), may be heading for a collision course with an Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-based advocacy group, the National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (NATCOMS).

The two, last week disagreed on the speculation that ALTON may bend the hands of the regulator to increase tariffs of services due to persistent government interference on infrastructure at the states and local government levels through what ALTON described as multiple taxation and indiscriminate levies on its members, as well as for unfriendly communities to the operators.

On the other hand, NATCOMS cautioned operators over the proposed tariff hike.
ITRealms Online recalls that penultimate week, Lagos State government while warning corporate organizations and mostly telecom companies against the habit of erecting base stations, towers, masts and parabolic antennae without observing the laws of the state, with the emergence of a special unit to oversee the installations.

According to the Head, Information of the new Urban Furniture Regulatory Unit (UFRU), a section of the Lagos State Infrastructure Maintenance and Regulatory Agency (LASIMRA), Mrs. Rahmat Alabi, this warning came in the wake of the attention of the Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, that certain corporate entities, particularly telecommunications companies were erecting base stations, towers, masts parabolic antennae without regard to the Physical Planning Laws and Regulations of the state.

So, the governor issued an executive order No. EO/020 of 2008, creating a new administrative structure, UFRU, under direct supervision of LASIMRA, to address the irregularities in the erection of masts across the state.

Speaking a fortnight ago at a press meeting in Lagos, telecommunications operators in the country, condemned the imposition of what it described as “unsubstantiated levies and charges” by government agencies both at the states and local levels.
The umbrella body of operators, ALTON, said that its office has been saturated with field reports from member companies on this basis.

Chairman, ALTON, Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, told newsmen penultimate Friday in Lagos, while enumerating their concerns to include the closure of some cell sites by government departments due to this ‘imposition.’ Noting that on a daily basis, network operators were being hounded, threatened and eventually extorted to part with huge sums of money or forced to abandon service roll out projects due to incessant extortion by undisclosed agents of ministries and parastatals.

These actions, he said, “Amounts to multiple taxations and in some cases have criminal undertones, which negatively impacts on the operational cost of the service providers and ultimately the overall quality of services. Our members have recorded increasing incidence of closure of Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) sites and other telecommunications infrastructure by these ministries, departments and authorities on the frivolous excuses of non-payment of the said arbitrarily imposed fines and levies.”

He emphasized that the capacity of the service providers to carry out requisite operations and maintenance activities on the affected infrastructure is often stalled with grave consequences on quality of service and network performance of telecom service providers.

As a result, Adebayo said that the security of workers of member companies are now at great danger due to the aforementioned, stressing that in the bid of these agencies of government to enforce the alleged levies and rates collections, they have purportedly resorted to acts equal to sheer brutality and threats to the lives of the staff of operating companies.

Highlighting that community hostilities and vandalism, have been another source of worry to ALTON, “Because telecommunications operators have lately become easy target for organized illegal extortion in some host communities by series of so called ‘community youths and local associations.”

Equally, he suspected that these groups are being sponsored and motivated by some community leaders, thus encouraging the supposed youths to daily take up arms against telecommunications operators, therefore, “resorting to blackmail, threats and in several instances, manifest act of brigandage and plundering of facilities at telecommunications installations, where the concerned operator fails to yield to their financial and other material demands.”

Pointing out that indiscriminate charges and incessant closure of telecommunication installations essentially exacerbate the cost of providing telecommunications services, thereby distorting operators roll out and service expansion goals to the detriment of efficient and qualitative service delivery to the subscribers.

ALTON, further said, it has resolved that member-companies may not henceforth guarantee the payment of these levies, arguing that tariff for telecommunications services shall hence be increased to, and maintained at the maximum tariff allowed under the relevant approvals of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) in any State of the Federation where the aforementioned activities remain uncurbed from Thursday, November 14, 2008.

According to ALTON, such a tariff would remain in effect until such activities are controlled and totally eradicated, maintaining that subscribers within the affected States, during this period of increase, shall not benefit from any service rate discount or bonus applied in other areas of the country.

ALTON insisted that its members’ stance was predicated on the need to ensure that there is ample justification for applicable service charges, which would be structured to consider service provision cost in peculiar localities, and to ensure that subscribers in law abiding and cooperative areas within the country are not made to suffer from the impact of increased cost of service provision foisted on network service providers in other less friendly and supportive States of the country.

But reacting to the above proposal, NATCOMS in a communiqué after an emergency meeting in Lagos, noted with dismay the threat by ALTON to increase tariffs and other telecommunications charges.

“The above threat is not only vexatious, annoying and condemnable, it is callous and totally out-of-order in a country that believes in the rule-of-law,” NATCOMS national president, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo said.

He noted that on Friday, May 4, 2007, ALTON had made a similar threat which was resisted by his group and its members nationwide, stressing that this year, ALTON has resuscitated the campaign once more, over as direct sanctions to offending communities if the practice by some State governments, local governments and agencies, do not desist from imposing indiscriminate levies on their operations within their localities.

NATCOMS advised ALTON to drag any state that is not ‘friendly’ with their operations to court, especially at this era of rule of law under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

“If ALTON feels aggrieved about multiple taxations by various tiers of government and agencies, they should take the particular government arm to court to seek redress. Once judgment is delivered in ALTON’s favour, and such an arm of government is duly served, the judgment execution and compliance will not be a problem, now that the whole nation is singing ‘rule of law’,” the group declared.

Further, NATCOMS cautioned that once any challenge is being faced by ALTON member operating companies, they found their solace on hiking charges for subscribers.

Cautioning that if ALTON believes that anytime any of its member companies is aggrieved that they could always pounce on telecom consumers for tariff increase, because they are weak and will take anything the operators so wish and desire, “they had better think twice as NATCOMS will challenge and resist any and every move by ALTON to increase tariffs/charges.”

The group alleged that ALTON is presently being used to create oligopoly in the nation’s telecom industry, which contradicts the law of healthy competition.
“ALTON is also being used only to consider tariffs increase on consumers. It becomes noteworthy to state that NATCOMS is prepared to go the full length,” the group warned.

The onus is now on the regulator, NCC to fashion a way out of the woods by way of instituting a consultative forum so as to foster the harmonious relationship that has paved the way for cordial environment in the ICT sector in recent times.

After all, when the two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers, which in this case are those who now depend on petty ICT services for daily bread such as recharge card hawkers and sellers.


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