Wednesday, July 06, 2011

ICT: Still awaiting bail-out funds

Making a request is one thing, especially when it involves fund and waking up to the follow up demand is another. REMMY NWEKE reports that both ALTON and ATCON now have the floor to make positive demand for bail-out for the sector.

A few months ago in Lagos during a breakfast meeting of stakeholders graced by the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Dr. Eugene Juwah, one thing that came to the forefront was the issue of some large number of dying operators across all sections of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector.

Be it in the Internet Service Provision (ISP), Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and even Value Added Service (VAS) industries, this seems to have cut across all.

Out of the agenda, however, broadband-related incentives seem to dominate the session, which resulted in stakeholders calling for a bail-out from the Nigerian government for the sector.

Chairman, pioneer Internet Service Provider (ISP) in the country, Linkserve Limited, Chief Chima Onyekwere, tasked the ICT regulator, the NCC, should have a bail-out fund for various operators within the ICT sector in the country.

He noted that even if today Nigeria deploys broadband nationwide, there is still challenges of compatible user premises equipment for it to be put to use adequately, declaring that operators in the industry strongly need subsidy to make a difference expected.

“A subsidy from NCC will help a great deal,” he asserted, pointing out that in South Korea and America, governments have assisted immensely in deployment of broadband in their various countries and urged the Nigerian government to queue into this process to move the ICT industry in the country forward, especially if the nation is still desirous of meeting her Vision 20-2020.

The chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, noted that voice only and scratch card companies are no longer in business, like most of the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are no longer operational.

Lamenting the fact that all is not well with telecommunications or ICT sector, he said that Nigeria and Nigerians started very early to celebrate the revolution of telecommunications, especially with the advent of GSM.

He proposed that his group and ATCON would join hands to come up with guidelines to help the government and its agencies to understand what is going on within the ICT, which would expose them to some of the challenges.

Adebayo outlined some of these challenges to comprise lack of right of way, electricity, vandalisation of telecom infrastructure, multiple taxation by various second and third tiers of government respectively, whom he alleged see telecommunications as a cash-cow.

Adebayo further suggested that industry regulator, NCC, may have to go cap-in hand to the relevant authorities of government to enlighten them and show factors depicting that all is not well with the industry, especially the operators.

He urged NCC to probably secure right of way from the Federal Ministry of Works and Environment and offer that as part of the Federal Government’s Broadband initiative like WIRE Nigeria, in order to save the operators the trouble of leaving their competence and chasing one local government and ministries from the other.

Corroborating the chairman of ALTON, his counterpart in the Association of Telecom Companies of Nigeria, Mr. Titi Omo-Ettu, declared that it has not been too rosy for the sector as Nigerians were made to believe.

Also, he said that they saw it as a challenge that would be faced, assuring that ATCON would partner ALTON in detailing challenges facing the industry and channel it to the industry regulatory, who in turn has the liberty to send it to the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication for onward presentation to the Federal Executive Council (FEC) which is the apex FG implementation organ in the country.

Equally, during a courtesy visit by ALTON to Airtel management team recently in Lagos, Adebayo said they had made representations to the NCC to develop an incentive-based bailout plan for the industry by granting exemptions, waivers or rebates on certain portions of the levy to ailing operators as a means of providing regulatory support, considering the Annual Operating Level (AOL) and payment suspension and reductions of dues payable to the Commission.

This, he said, would further assure the sustainable growth of the industry, stressing that ALTON strongly oppose the House of Representatives Bill on Telecommunications (Equity) (HB173) Bill of 2009.

“This Bill set to mandate shareholding in telecommunication companies: our position was submitted to the Nigerian Investment Promotional Commission (NIPC) on the 12th of May 2009,” he said.

Some of the outlines of ALTON submission, he said, included that if the bill is passed as drafted may fundamentally alter the Federal Government’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy and negates the role of NIPC as well as “... Amount to re-enacting the indigenization Act of 1972.”

ALTON, Adebayo said, had intervened variously on the implication of multiple regulations in the industry and the confusion that follows, asserting, “We engage NCC continuously to assert its responsibility over telecommunications sector oversight and control at the appropriate governmental level.”

Adebayo pointed out that ALTON is a body duly registered in 2000 under the laws of Federal Republic of Nigeria as an incorporated trustee, and the industry advocacy group for all providers of telecommunications network and subsidiary services in Nigeria.

Membership of ALTON he said includes all network operating companies as well as those providing ancillary and other related value added services, whereas, its major objectives is to foster inter-network cooperation and industry harmony amongst all the operators and the regulator, as well as provides a platform for industry cum stakeholders’ interaction and collaboration for the advancement of the Nigerian telecommunications market.

Welcoming the visitors to Airtel Nigeria office at Banana Island, the Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Rajan Swaroop, commended ALTON and assured that the company has been built on professionalism and have been growing professionals to meet its demand in delivering good telecom services in the country.

He suggested to ALTON to make case for shortening of customer service agent engagement by subscribers to about three minutes to accommodate more needy subscribers. Alternatively, he suggested that it could be charged to compel telecom consumers to be precise on their inquiries to customer service agents.

Another worry expressed by the Airtel boss, was that despite business decision to expand, installations of towers takes up to three months to finalise due to some bottlenecks in getting relevant approvals from the government and its agencies.

He enjoined ALTON to take this up with the regulatory authorities so as to find a solution to the aforementioned, just as he assured of Airtel Nigeria’s support to ALTON in its advocacy campaigns among others.

On the other hand, the apex telecommunications regulator in the country, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has said that despite the media reports that Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) sector needs bail-out, it is yet to receive any formal request to that effect.

Reviewing the industry, recently in Abuja, the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of NCC, Dr. Eugene Juwah disclosed that none of the operating companies or industry interest groups has really come out literally to demand for the bail-out.

He advised whosoever agitating for bail out to come up and take the necessary steps to ensure due process. He counseled “It’s better for the agitators to come up with convincing facts,” adding that NCC is ready to do its part whenever such facts are made available to the Commission.

Juwah explained that for such a request, it’s a process to get actualized, especially in policy formation, pointing out that its left for the agitators to convince NCC on this premise, the Commission could now take such facts to the Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, who is the custodian of government policies in the sector.

Noting that it’s now left for the Minister in charge to take up from there to the Federal Executive Council (FEC), from where if it’s accepted becomes a policy of the government and budget then allocated to it.

As the demands for bail out for the ICT sector continue to gain moment, the onus is now on the various trade groups especially the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) and Association of Telecom Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) to take the lead and create the enabling time to meet, and probably set up a joint committee on this subject with terms of reference that would not exceed one month.

The urgency call as far as the bail out for the ICT sector is concerned is that the momentum is ripe with the acknowledgement of NCC to work on their demands.

A stitch in time saves nine.

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