It was during his visit to THISDAY office in Lagos sometime last year when the executive vice-chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Eugene Juwah was confronted by this writer on the allegation that the hierarchy of the commission had been compromised by some of the network operators, so much so that most of the infractions of telecom operators were swept under the carpet.
Juwah, who led his executive team on a familiarisation visit, did not only refute the allegation, but promised that it would no longer be a business as usual for operators in the Nigerian telecom industry. Unfortunately, increasing complaints by mobile phone subscribers over poor quality of services rendered by operators, throughout last year, failed to push the commission into action.
But in what may be deemed a late start, however, the commission decided to bare its fangs penultimate Friday when it fined the four GSM operators the sum of N1.17 billion for their failure to meet the key performance indicators under the quality of services (QoS) set for them by the NCC. The four GSM companies affected by the fine were MTN, Etisalat, Airtel and Globacom.
While MTN and Etisalat were fined the sums of N360 million each, Airtel and Globacom were fined N270 million and N180 million, respectively, and with the exception of Etisalat which was given till May 25 to pay the fine, the other three are to pay the fine latest by tomorrow, May 21.
In imposing the fines, the NCC said it had in the months of March and April 2012, monitored the standard of quality of service of the four networks.
Season of Probes
Since NCC decided to wield the big stick, analysts have contended that the latest crackdown on the four major service providers was inevitable given the mood of the nation. This, according to them, is a period of accountability, when all the sectors of the nation's economy are coming under the scrutiny of the national assembly, especially the House of Representatives.
NCC, they said, was unwittingly forced to breathe down the neck of the erring mobile operators as subscribers' complaints have reached a crescendo in recent times. For instance, the poor quality of services by some of these operators often results in dropped calls, crazy charges and outright loss of service in several cases. Analysts believe that the poor services were sustained by the failure of the industry regulator to adequately sanction the erring operators and compel them to compensate subscribers.
However, the mobile network operators have continued to defend their positions blaming such challenges as multiple taxation and regulations, poor infrastructure, poor power supply, vandalism and capacity crunch, among others for poor telecoms services in the country. These are germane issues which cannot be ignored.
Industry watchers maintained that the achievement of the country's telecom sector has been dwarfed by worsening quality of service, which has deteriorated significantly in recent times. Some of the subscribers who spoke with THISDAY last week said more severe sanctions should be meted out on any operator that does not take the issue of good service quality seriously.
A textile material dealer in Oke-Arin market, Lagos, Mrs. Grace Adelabu, said virtually all the networks are guilty of poor service delivery. She said the development could explain why the average mobile phone user in Nigeria carries more than one line.
"I have virtually all the networks because I need to speak with my suppliers and customers from time to time. Unfortunately, some of these networks are not reliable because one may have to make several efforts before you get access," she said. She added that it is made worse when subscribers are charged calls they could not make.
Mr. Tony Idoko, a driver with the Lagos State Bus Management Authority, said a particular network provider is more guilty of poor service delivery. "For some days, I couldn't make a call from my phone and that happens from time to time," he said.
For Tunde Thomas (not real name), a journalist, the problem of poor network and the failure of the network providers to compensate their subscribers has worsened the case of network operators. "Their excuse is that Nigeria does not have good infrastructure. They also complain of vandalisation but curiously enough, these factors have not deterred them from embarking on frivolous consumer promotions with the aim of increasing their subscriber base," he said.
What Operators Say
However, while NCC said that the current penalties against the four companies signaled a new regime of QoS management in the Nigerian telecommunications industry as promised by the leadership of the commission under Juwah, some of the affected companies maintained that the punishment did not take into consideration the huge investment made by the operators as well as the problems confronting them.
While it could not be ascertained whether the affected operators had paid the fines slammed on them, as none of their officials was ready to speak on this, however, in her response to THISDAY enquiries last week, MTN's general manager, corporate affairs, Funmilayo Omogbenigun said the company had never hidden its challenges from the regulators.
She said: "MTN is in constant engagement with the NCC and all the relevant arms of government with respect to the challenges that impede consistent standards of service quality. We have also used the medium of the mass media to communicate same.
"Recall that we recently issued a paid advertorial alerting the general public to the frequency of criminal damage to our fibre and the impact on service quality particularly in certain parts of the country. There is no business that is happy when its customers complain. It is absolutely in our interest to deliver excellent quality of services to our customers and we employ strenuous efforts to do so."
She disclosed that MTN has invested more than $10 billion in network infrastructure since 2001. "In 2012 alone, MTN will invest $1.3billion (over N200 billion) in the network. In spite of these huge investments, we continue to suffer the negative impact of inadequate power supply which has continued to deteriorate, vandalisation to our facilities, multiple taxation and over regulation often by all manner of agencies that frequently shut down our facilities for spurious reasons/taxes and levies of doubtful legality, causing disruption to our services.
"We continue to engage with the various arms of government and solicit assistance with ensuring that there is a conducive operating environment for the telecommunication industry to thrive. We constantly solicit the support and understanding of our regulator, the NCC, and our customers who are of paramount importance."
Manager, public relations, Etisalat, Chinese Amanfo, on her part, said that she could not state with certainty the measures put in place so far to improve network quality. She, however, said that the company stood by the statement released to the public last week after the imposition of the fines.
The statement quoted the chief executive officer of the company, Steven Evans, as stating, "The company in its over three years of rendering quality telecommunications services in the country has invested over $2 billion in building and expanding its network and will continue to invest in upgrading and expanding its network and capacity in order to meet the communications need of its customers."
He added, "This year alone we are investing more than half a billion dollars in expansion of our network capabilities and capacity and this expansion which is currently in progress, will reflect positively on the quality of our network." He further explained that the failure to hit some of the quality measures could not be attributed alone to capacity expansion but also by other factors which represent industry-wide challenges.
"Foremost amongst these is the absence of reliable power which necessitates that every one of over 3,000 cell sites needs to be served by two generators which run 24 hours a day and need regular maintenance and provision of weekly supplies of diesel. Allied to this challenge is the regular damage and cuts to the fiber networks due to roadwork's and in some cases sabotage.
"These factors are unique to the operating environment in Nigeria and pose a tough challenge for operators to deliver quality of service levels equal to that of other countries. What we would like to see is the declaration of the Telecommunications Industry as Critical National Infrastructure, which would afford the industry and its facilities greater protection.
"We would like to reiterate our commitment to delivering quality telecom services to Nigeria and to all our customers and we will not relent in our quest to remain number one in terms of quality," he concluded.
Spokesperson for Globacom, Mr. Ayo Asagba declined to comment on the issue when THISDAY spoke with him last week, as he insisted the company would soon make its position known.
Also, his counterpart in Airtel, Emeka Opara promised to call back last Wednesday to explain the position of his company, but he never did. In an article published in THISDAY last Tuesday, however, Opara reiterated the position of all the networks about the challenges operating in the Nigerian environment.
Speaking on the fines imposed on network operators, the president, National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, urged the NCC to compensate the over 95 million active subscribers with the recent fines imposed for poor services.
He said the step taken by NCC reflected that the regulatory body had woken up from its slumber and was now reacting appropriately to the issue of poor service quality in the telecoms industry. He, however, said that since the country's telecoms subscribers were the ones feeling the brunt of poor services by the operators, it would only be justifiable for the NCC to compensate them with the N1.17 billion in penalty proceeds.