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Friday, November 22, 2019

ALTON: Advocate or Antagonist? - ITREALMS

Technology enthusiasts are big on the power of new and emerging technologies to disrupt existing realities. Consider how personal computers, smartphones, and the internet caused disruptions. Today, we are talking about autonomous vehicles, Three Dimension (3D) printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, wearables, and the likes. Oh, the possibilities!

History has shown, however, that people can also be the cause of disruptions; eccentric, unconventional, uncommon, nonconformist and courageous people.

While the jury is still out on whether, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami fits the bill, his actions so far, nonetheless, point to a deep empathy for the long-suffering Nigerian telecoms consumer.

On resumption of office, he quickly kicked against and later formally kicked out the plan by telecoms service providers to introduce new charges for Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). The USSD is used by customers for financial transactions.

The Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) tackled the minister. ALTON’s Administrative Secretary, Gbolahan Awonuga, slammed the minister for interference,

noting that the N4.00 charge was determined by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the country’s telecom regulator alongside stakeholders under an Industry Working Group (IWG), before the minister’s appointment.

According to Gbolahan, “The issue is not policy, but regulation which has a legal document backing it. We are confusing regulation with policy. There was a determination on this USSD, even before the appointment of the Minister,” he stated.

Next, the minister directed the NCC to work at reducing data cost and curb incidences of illegal deductions from customers' account within five working days. This is something that telecoms consumers have complained about for eons.

ALTON’s Chairman, Gbenga Adebayo insisted that the service providers were not making illegal deductions, contrary to complaints being made by subscribers. He explained that the smartphones being used by the subscribers were to blame for such deductions.

In his words: “If you are using a smartphone naturally you have all these updates and downloads that are unsolicited but you get it whether you want it or not but that is what keeps your phone up-to-date. Most of those deductions are traceable to that.”

On the proposed slash of the cost of data, ALTON said, “Price is not a policy issue; price is determined by market forces. Price cannot be set by policy pronouncement.”

Dr. Pantami latest directive is an order to service providers to stop further exploitation of subscribers through the automatic activation of the voicemail service on their platforms.

By law, the voicemail service should be optional on operators’ platforms. But in practice, it has historically been offered as a mandatory call feature by MNOs resulting in loss of millions of call units by subscribers to the advantage of operators.

According to the statement credited to Dr. Pantami, “The Voicemail service should be accessed at the discretion of the subscriber and not by default.”

Expectedly, ALTON again quickly responded to the minister’s directive insisting that the minister’s intervention amounted to unnecessary interference.

ALTON said that voicemail not a major “policy issue” within the meaning of section 23 &24 of the Nigeria Communication Act (NCA) which empowers the Minister to formulate “general policy for the communications sector…” after consultations organised by the NCC.

ALTON appears poised to tackle the Minister at every point. It has certainly given Dr. Pantami a frosty welcome.

The association has also proven feisty. It appears poised for a fight at every turn. It is unwilling to budge. It would not relent. In its books, the operators can do no wrong.

It is not surprising, ALTON is anxious to defend its members, promote their interest and advocate their position. ALTON is doing its job, as an advocate for its members.

Sadly, only one side has an advocate, the service providers. Who is talking on behalf of the customers?

No one!

An association of telecoms customers and subscribers would if it existed. The NCC should if it were doing its job. Currently, however, no one is speaking for the telecoms consumer. The minister is thus automatically a hero to the much-deprived Nigerian telecoms consumers and customers.

Some say the Minister may have political ambition and he is seeking public appeal. Well, he is getting it. He deserves it.

This is because the issues he has raised are germane, valid and real pain points for the telecoms consumer, over the years.

From the customers’ point of view, the planned introduction of USSD charges was uncalled for. The Minister knocking it down was simply fulfilling the aspiration of the customers.

Illegal deductions and high cost of data are a perennial and vexed issue in the sector. The operators conveniently ignored talks about it.

Plus, Nigerians generally believe that data is overpriced. The operators see no need to justify what they charge. It's a take or leave it sort of transaction, a supplier's market. This is why ALTON’s talk about market forces is untenable.

Nigerians have complained of data disappearing fast for years. What has the NCC done about it? The operators and the association constantly offer excuses.

Now that someone is speaking for the customers, resistance is expected. So, ALTON's aggressive posturing is understandable. It has to protect its source of revenue. The telecoms operators are content to hide behind the association. They won't want to be seen openly or directly contending against the Minister.

While it is in order to commend the Minister for his willingness to address these vexed issues, it is equally prudent to call for caution. There are rules to this game. And since we are not in a “juggle” everything can't be achieved by administrative fiat.

The Minister must meet with the ministry’s legal team. He should get them to look at the law and counsel him where he can intervene directly and where he would need the regulator to work out an agreeable solution.

He should meet with the commission, to share his vision for the ministry. Together, they can then work out what is possible within the ambit of the law. Immediately afterward, the Minister can meet with the telecoms operators and then the general public.

The Minister must understand that the operators do have genuine grievances. There are issues around right of way, multiple taxation, and the regular wanton vandalisation of telecom infrastructure across the country.

He must support efforts to declared telecom infrastructure as a critical national infrastructure. He should be willing to work assiduously to help improve ease of doing business for telecos.

ALTON, on its part, however, can make its point and indeed make its position known without being antagonistic and unduly confrontational. ALTON should be an advocate and not an antagonist.

The Ministry was appointed to work for all Nigerians, the customers and the business people alike.

The purpose of disruption is to dislocate the status quo, realign forces and enforce change.

If the Minister's disruption brings about change then it is a win for the Nigerian telecoms consumer, in particular, and the industry at large.
*Elvis Eromosele, a Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst lives in Lagos.

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