" ITREALMS: Beauty of harmonised USSD code in Nigeria - ITREALMS

Monday, April 10, 2023

Beauty of harmonised USSD code in Nigeria - ITREALMS

Features, TelecomsClinic@ITREALMS ... making leadership SENSE with digital news!

The harmonisation of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) notch for the telecoms sector is timeous, handy, and memorizable, writes ITREALMS’ REMMY NWEKE, with applause for the Industry Working Group (IWG) and all other parties involved in signing off on this initiative as Nigerians await the 5G bouquet.


In a suburb of Lagos known as Bolade in the Oshodi-Isolo Local Government Area of the commercial city, a single mother identified as Iya Hannah Odewale operates an airtime kiosk. She deals in all manners of airtime; from phone airtime also called ‘credit’ in local parlance to providing top-ups for decoders, among others in the neighbourhood.

She also has a neighbour who works at a customer service centre of one of the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) known as Onyi Kachiukwu. One thing these neigbhours have in common is that they reside in same building at the neighbourhood and with the coming of the introduction of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) by mobile operators to conduct some services including checking of balances on airtime or data, Iya Hannah is sure Onyi has the precise code answer and from there, he became the help-line for Iya Hannah; giving her the needed and relevant codes so she can offer and fulfill customers request.
Beauty of harmonised USSD code in Nigeria by Remmy Nweke - ITREALMS

Was Pantami for telecom consumers?

Noteworthy is that towards the last quarter of 2019, especially on resumption of office, the current Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Ali Pantami took it upon himself to kick against and even later formally commenced jettisoning plans by MNOs to introduce new charges for USSD, more so upon realisation that USSD is largely now being used by bank customers for financial transactions.

Initially, this imbroglio set the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) against the minister and raised some literally bad blood between the two. ALTON had through its Administrative Secretary, Gbolahan Awonuga, decried Pantami's interference, which was seen by stakeholders as merely political.

According to Gbolahan, the N4.00 charge on USSD was determined by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the country’s telecom regulator alongside stakeholders under an (IWG), prior to Pantami’s appointment. Insisting that borne of contention then was not policy but regulation which took due process to emerge, stressing, “The issue is not policy, but regulation Industry Working Group which has a legal document backing it. We are confusing regulations with policy. There was a determination on this USSD, even before the appointment of the Minister.”

Reacting, ALTON’s Chairman, Engr. Gbenga Adebayo, said that to 'illegal deductions by operators from customers' whether on the cost of using USSD or data precisely, is not policy issue. “… Price is determined by market forces. Price cannot be set by policy pronouncement.”

Beauty of harmonised USSD code in Nigeria by Remmy Nweke - ITREALMS

What is USSD code:

Defined as the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data, USSD, sometimes referred to as "short codes, quick codes or feature codes," is a communications protocol used by GSM cellular telephones to communicate with the mobile network operator's computers. Also, USSD protocol is a global system for mobile communications that allows users to send text messages and perform some financial transactions using the platform, hence, USSD often works similarly in function and purpose as SMS despite notable differences. USSD could be used on any type of phone without necessarily having data or connected to the Internet. This paved the way for the financial sector to deploy USSD for financial inclusion using mobile phones with requisite code.

The chairman, Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Engr. Gbenga Adebayo posited that USSD channel has evolved over time from an exclusive channel used for only telco services such as balance inquiry and recharges, to a channel being deployed for financial, insurance, agricultural and government services, etc. He also noted, USSD channel is technically delivered using the Standalone Dedicated Control Channel (SDCCH) which is also used for call and SMS set-ups and delivery respectively. Underlining that like voice and data, network resources are used in provisions of USSD services, hence there are significant costs associated with its deployment and maintenance.

As it was ...:

Before now, all the four mobile operators in the country have various USSD codes for varying services, so was over 20 banks in Nigeria. For instance, hitherto, Airtel subscribers could dial *12181# to check phone number, *121# is about 'Everything about Airtel SIM card,' *140# gives data balance and *123*1# enables subscribers to check airtime bonus. For MTN subscribers, they could use *663# or *123*1*1# for checking their own number, *606*amount# for borrowing airtime (airtime advance), *606# and select xtrabyte for borrowing data, whereas *777*receiver's number*amount*PIN# is for airtime transfer.

For Glo subscribers they could before now us *1244# to check their Glo mobile number, *124*1# for checking bonus data balance, *5321# for airtime borrowing, and *125*2# for package and charging plan. While 9mobile subscribers could dial *917# to buy any desired standard data plan, to share, dial *229*9*pin*data quota*recipient's number*3# you can also dial *200# & follow the menu options.

And for Access Bank, for instance, *901# is for banking solution only via customer's mobile phone; by dialing *894*0# on a mobile phone linked to First Bank, a list of masked debit cards linked to your account would be displayed. Also, with *894# a suite of services including airtime recharge, transfer, balance could be accessed from this point and a dial to *894.911# would deactivate your mobile number in the event of security threat. Even as Zenith bank says that by dialing *966*60#, customers must select option services of their choice including opening account.

Double charging for USSD users:

As at last quarter of 2019, ALTON had indicted Bankers Committee over the double charging of end-users through USSD access fees, consequent upon subscribers outcry leading to the suspension of the implementation of the charges by then Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Pantami.

Adebayo pointed out that the banks, however, identified the convenience of delivering services to its customers over the USSD channel, and often applied to NCC for USSD codes to deliver these services. USSD short codes were thereafter issued to them and as is expected, they became fully responsible for the charges associated with delivering services to customers through these short codes.

He emphasized that lately, USSD channel had become a preferred service channel for the financial sector because of the cost efficiencies derived from the adoption of the channel. Today, USSD codes such as *737#, *906# have become leading brands because banks have intensified the promotion of this channel to mostly the banked base towards the overall improvement of efficiencies with less focus on other service channels such as brick and mortar centers.

"With the increase in USSD traffic driven by financial services which currently constitutes approximately 90% of the entire USSD traffic, our members have continued to incur additional costs to provision additional SDCCH channels to mitigate against the negative impact on the quality of service. It is therefore factually incorrect when allusions are made that USSD costs incurred by our members are sunk costs which are not recoverable.

"In order to accelerate the adoption of financial services on USSD, the banks partnered with our members to zero-rate the USSD access to end-users, while the banks bore the cost for the provision of service. Based on this arrangement, the banks took on the responsibility of billing customers and paid our members for use of the USSD infrastructure from the service fees deducted from the customer’s bank account. These service fees charged by the banks, were however far in excess of the costs remitted to our members by the banks for providing the USSD platform and have since remained so.

Following the issuance of the USSD Pricing Determination by NCC which resulted in a price review of USSD service by ALTON members, Adebayo said, the banks stated that they would no longer pay for USSD service delivered to their customers and requested our members to charge customers directly for use of the USSD channel.

End-user billing controversy:

This billing methodology where the Banks customer is directly charged USSD access fees by our members irrespective of the service charges that the bank may subsequently apply to the customers’ bank account is called “End-User Billing” which the banks specifically demanded that all our members implement. The banks, however, provided no assurances to our members that such service fees charged to customers’ bank accounts for access to bank services through the USSD channel will be discontinued post implementation of end-user billing by MNOs.

The removal of these service fees by the banks would have meant that if bank customers were charged only the USSD costs communicated by telecom operators per USSD session, bank customers would be paying far less than what they are currently being charged by the banks which in some instances are as high as N50.

“Additionally the banks and telco’s will be applauded for collaborating towards the financial inclusion objectives of the Federal Government,” he declared, reiterating that "Our members were however concerned that the banks were unlikely to discontinue the USSD service fees charged by the banks when customers utilize the USSD channel thereby resulting in double and over billing, whereby our members charge consumers for the USSD access from their airtime and the banks still proceed to charge the same consumers a service charge from their bank accounts.”

Adebayo urged In the interest of the consumers, our members challenged the implementation of end-user billing until a formal request for its implementation was received from the body of Bankers Chief Executive Officers and several banks specifically demanding that end-user billing be implemented.

"In view of the opposition to the implementation of end-user billing by customers, our members, as responsible and responsive corporate citizens are committed to safeguarding consumer interests, and in this regard, we are willing to explore mutually beneficial solutions which ensure that costs associated with the provision of USSD services as determined by the NCC are fully recovered by our members and customers are not billed twice for the same service and by different institutions which is what end-user billing advocated by the banks will entail,” he enthused, urging NCC and CBN to convene urgently a meeting of the financial and telecoms industry stakeholders to address this issue for the benefit of the consumers and other stakeholders.

The 6-point resolution:

Then came a breakthrough between ALTON, the financial institutions led by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and NCC after a protracted exercise, thereby given rise to the emergence of new USSD pricing as issued by CBN and NCC, as at Tuesday, March 16, 2021, after the two Federal Government (FG) regulators, jointly brokered an acceptable pricing for USSD at N6.98 to avert the suspension of USSD by MNOs as earlier threatened.

ITREALMS recalls that MNOs and Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) have had protracted disagreements over appropriate USSD pricing model for financial transactions, which resulted in the accumulation of outstanding fees to the tune of N42 billion and led to potential service withdrawal by the MNOs. But confirming this, then Acting Director, Corporate Communications at Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Osita Nwanisobi and Director, Public Affairs at NCC, Dr. lkechukwu Adinde, informed both regulators alongside other stakeholders, to hence charge a flat fee of N6.98 per transaction.

A 6-point resolution endorsed by Nwanisobi and Adinde include read in part:

“1. Effective March 16, 2021, USSD services for financial transactions conducted at DMBs and all CBN - licensed institutions will be charged at a flat fee of N6.98 per transaction. This replaces the current per session billing structure, ensuring a much cheaper average cost for customers to enhance financial inclusion. This approach is transparent and will ensure the amount remains the same, regardless of the number of sessions per transaction.

“2. To promote transparency in its administration, the new USSD charges will be collected on behalf of MNOs directly from customers' bank accounts. Banks shall not impose additional charges on customers for use of the USSD channel.

“3. A settlement plan for outstanding payments incurred for USSD services, previously rendered by the MNOs, is being worked out by all parties in a bid to ensure that the matter is fully resolved.

“4. MNOs and DMBs shall discuss and agree on the operational modalities for the implementation of the new USSD pricing framework, including sharing of Application Programme Interface (API) to enable seamless, direct, and transparent customer billing.

“5. DMBs and MNOs are committed to engaging further strategies to lower costs and enhance access to financial services.

“6. With the above resolutions, the impending suspension of DMBs from the USSD channel is hereby vacated. Therefore, DMBs shall no longer be disconnected from the USSD channel.”

They also reminded the public that the USSD channel is optional, as several alternative channels such as mobile apps, internet banking and ATMs may be used for financial transactions. Just as both regulators pledged continuous engagement with relevant operators and all stakeholders towards promotion of cheaper, seamless access to mobile and financial services for all Nigerians.

Operators must implement harmonized 13 short codes:

About Monday, March 13, 2023, telecom regulator, NCC had directed MNOs to commence implementation of approved harmonised short codes (HSC) for providing services to telecom consumers in Nigeria with a deadline of May 17, 2023, for all mobile networks to fully migrate from hitherto diverse short codes to the harmonised codes aimed at achieving uniformity in common short codes across networks.

This means that the code for checking airtime balance would on above set deadline be the same across all mobile networks for the same function, irrespective of the network telecom consumers using the over 226 million active mobile lines in the country, uses.

Under new harmonised short codes regime, 13 common short codes have been approved by NCC, including 300 to be used as the harmonised code for Call Centre/Help Desk on all mobile networks; 301 for voice Mail Deposit; 302 for Voice Mail Retrieval; 303 for borrow services; 305 for STOP service; 310 for check balance, and 311 for credit recharge.

Also, the common code for data plans across networks is now 312; 321 is for share services; 323 is for data plan balance. The code, 996, is now for Verification of Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) Registration/NIN-SIM Linkage. The code, 2442, was retained for Do-Not-Disturb (DND) unsolicited messaging complaint management, while 3232 code, is also retained for porting services, otherwise called Mobile Number Portability (MNP).

The initiative, NCC said, is response to regulatory modernisation programme, which makes life much easier for telecom consumers, as it is now easier for Nigerians to memorise single codes for various services across all mobile networks they may be using, thereby improving consumer quality of experience (QoE).


With the implementation outlined by NCC and deadline of May 17, 2023, it’s now easier for likes of Iya Hannah Odewale to memorise the 13 short codes, even though Onyi Kachiukwu had advised the articulation of the harmonised codes to be printed in bold, either on A4 or A3 paper and hang on the wall within Iya Hannah’s kiosk for ease of access.

The harmonisation of short codes as known today in the Nigeria's telecom sector is obvious win-win situation for both the banks and MNOs, there is an understanding now. 

The fact that using USSD or other telecom services is not policy issue alone but determined by market forces, cannot but be true and now the card for those who wanted to play politics with USSD, has been exposed.

It’s obvious that the benefits for mobile operators making use of USSD would boost startups on the continent, according to the senior insights manager, GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator, Maxime Bayen, said that more African entrepreneurs, are expected to use USSD technology to run their services. 

He pointed out that any startup that targets the mass market should be looking at the USSD technology to power their service. Thus, GSMA encourages emerging markets startups to develop mobile services for the mass market to look carefully at the opportunities offered by USSD technology and engage with local mobile operators to unlock them.

Although, it seems the telecom subscriber is the one simply bearing the brunt by being charged by telcos as well as the banks, as more competition is anticipated within the FinTech players with deployment of Fifth Generation (5G) networks bouquet by MNOs.

Above all, the telecom sector urgently needs a vibrant subscribers’ advocacy group to stand in gap when matters of this nature are being discussed at a roundtable, like in the early days of Global System for Mobile (GSM) Communications in the country.

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