This Day (Lagos)

5 December 2012

Nigeria: The Wonder of Communication

Eddie Iroh's article which he titled "The misery of communication", published in THISDAY of November 27 may be viewed in some quarters as his attempt to voice the feelings of many mobile phone users in Nigeria today. This is perfectly understandable given the unacceptable quality of service in the recent past, brought on by numerous reasons that have been repeatedly articulated by the telecommunications industry over many years. Mr. Iroh is well within his rights as a consumer to complain and we once again, offer him and all our customers our unreserved apologies for any inconveniences that they are experiencing as the Industry deals with the problem of adequate capacity and availability.

However, with due respect to the veteran journalist, Eddie Iroh, in articulating the frustrations of the Nigerian mobile telephone user in his highly emotive article, he has made many assumptions and statements that are factually incorrect and a gross under estimation of the pivotal role of telecommunications in the socio-economic development of Nigeria today and in the future. That is why a rejoinder is imperative. We are responding not to join issues with Mr. Iroh or to challenge his or anyone's right to complain about a service that they have paid for but to lay out the facts so that they are well known and appreciated by the Nigerian public.

First, MTN once again acknowledges with regret, that many customers have endured poor quality of service particularly in the recent past. Contrary to the impression given in Mr. Iroh's article the reasons are not as a result of a deliberate attempt to cheat the Nigerian customer or due to sub standard equipment or poor governance standards or greed or sheer apathy.

Certainly, MTN Nigeria has built the most extensive and sophisticated ICT infrastructure on the African continent which international experts have acknowledged as the springboard of an ICT revolution in sub-Saharan Africa, starting in Nigeria. MTN's network essentially serves as a national backbone with a 9,500 kilometre fibre optics superhighway, the most extensive private fibre optic network of its kind in Africa and the Middle East, and an 11,500 kilometre microwave infrastructure covering 90% of the population of Nigeria. MTN is the largest telecommunications investor in Nigeria having sunk over N1 Trillion in CAPEX over a period of eleven years. Indeed, the shareholders of MTN Nigeria have been unrelenting with their continued investment philosophy consistently approving more resources than the absorbent capacity of our environment.

In 2012 alone, MTN has committed over USD 1.3 Billion on capital projects including the extensive network optimization and swap out exercise to replace legacy equipment and install hybrid alternative energy solutions in our base stations. Since the commencement of this project, MTN has consistently informed the public through full page advertorials in all the national newspapers and local radio announcements in affected regions because we were well aware from the onset that the customer experience would be adversely impacted.

That is not to say that customers still do not have a legitimate right to complain. We have continued to explain that the current exercise is a huge sacrifice that has to be made in order for us to consistently increase capacity and keep abreast with the latest available technology so that we can offer our customers the kind of service that they richly deserve.

It is pertinent to note that the telecommunications industry in Nigeria is the fastest growing sector of the economy and contributes more than 3.5 % to GDP. Since 2001, our industry has attracted in excess of USD 23 Billion in Direct Foreign Investment. The sector pays huge taxes and levies into the coffers of Government.

MTN Nigeria alone has paid almost N1Trillion in various taxes since 2001. Yes, the profits have been remarkable but they are commensurate with the level of investment that has been consistently poured into the business over more than a decade, and they are indicative of the incredible potential in this great nation. The telecommunication industry in Nigeria has become the country's greatest investment ambassador all round the world, even though we are still experiencing serious challenges in service delivery which is of utmost concern to us and to all the relevant stakeholders especially in the Executive and Legislative arms of Government and the NCC.

Indeed, it appears that foreign commentators, analysts, investors, and the media who habitually speak of the 'telecommunication miracle' in Nigeria appear to harbor a far more positive and optimistic perspective of the challenges and future prospects of the local telecommunication industry. That may be because they are accustomed to and have lived through the prolonged financial and human investment, the inconvenience and attendant long term rewards associated with building utilities and infrastructure from inception to maturity.

We must not forget how this sector has not only created millions of jobs directly and indirectly, it has stimulated massive economic opportunity for a multiplicity of sectors of the economy - the financial sector, advertising, PR, entertainment, music, fashion, broadcasting, consultancy, trading, services . Telecommunications companies have unleashed previously untapped potential in millions of Nigerians through various capacity building initiatives, mega sponsorships, CSR and yes, promotions - the interventions that Mr. Iroh derisively refers to as 'promoting themselves and enticing new customers'. Those Nigerians whose careers have taken off or who have won life changing prizes or enjoyed hitherto unavailable opportunities will not be enamored by Mr. Iroh's cavalier point of view in this respect.

We must not forget that apart from the generic telecommunication services such as voice and text, our industry's underpinnings is ICT, and we provide the backbone for all electronic payments, POS, ATM's, electronic logistic support for numerous businesses such as the oil industry, transportation companies, data warehousing to name a few of the multiplicity of business solutions that we have all come to take for granted that ride on the ICT backbone built and maintained by our industry. When we hear of Mobile Money, Cashless Banking, internet banking, these are all services enabled by our ICT backbone.

The foregoing is not a veiled chest beating exercise or a cynical defense of our position. That would be wholly unnecessary. We have simply stated verifiable facts, with the sincere intention that readers appreciate that there is another perspective to the impression given by Mr. Iroh of an entire industry whose main objective is to exploit its customers and deliberately inflict poor service on them.

The well known management expert Peter Drucker said that the sole objective of every business is to "create a customer."And who is our customer? It is the person who is able to make a voice call or a data transaction and impressed, comes back for more of the service. That is the reason for all the financial and human investments and effort that we make to attract and retain. Pleasing the customer is what it boils down to. The sustainability of our Business is a direct consequence of our ability to engage and retain our valued subscribers such as Mr. Iroh.

Therefore, how can it be in our best interest to constantly attract heavy criticism? Why would we 'allow' a situation to persist that is detrimental to our corporate and financial objectives?

As Mr. Iroh rightly observed, the issue of poor quality appears to be common to all the operators to varying degrees. With a community of over 45 Million customers, MTN recognizes that leadership comes with responsibility and its pains.

However, the issues that impede good quality of service are common to all. On the most fundamental level, the entire industry suffers a huge capacity constraint. With a landmass the size of Nigeria and its population, the 20,000 odd base stations combined owned by all the major networks is grossly inadequate.

MTN alone which owns a little over 12,000 base stations is involved in a very aggressive roll out initiative to grow the number of base station exponentially over the next few years. Suffice to say that before we get to the stage where we begin to boast of sufficient or excess capacity that we see in developed countries, every operator needs to continue to build and invest very aggressively over many more years. This is how it is done everywhere.

Mr. Iroh alluded to operators not having to re-invent anything in a world of globalization and knowledge transfer. True. He is spot on. The technology and knowledge has been transferred -fully. But those who invented the technology cannot also transfer their enabling environment and developed infrastructure to the shores of Nigeria.

Indeed, this industry has re-invented the wheel in many respects. Our combined networks are the largest in the world run by privately generated power otherwise known as generators. We have learnt to deploy cutting edge technology in an environment that offers limited protection from vandals, and thieves who destroy and plunder our infrastructure with impunity. They plunge entire communities into poor service areas by their activities. If the base station in question is what is known as a hub site, which supports up to 400 other base stations, then customers in locations 400 kilometers away from the site that has been vandalized suffer.

We have learnt to maintain a network that supports 100% dependence for telephone services by the population. In the developed countries, where we have copied GSM technology, and we are often compared with, the land line systems were established decades ago and they are the default providers of telephone services so that mobiles are used only as the name implies.

A few weeks ago, the country was horrified by news of attacks on telecom installations in the northern part of the country by insurgents. Base stations in their hundreds were bombed or burnt to the ground. Till this moment it has been impossible to restore many of those base stations, as some residents in the areas have resisted it - they are understandably fearful that the base station will once again attract insurgents, putting their lives in danger. We too are fearful for the lives of our own engineers who shoulder the responsibility of building the network and carrying out routine maintenance at night in remote parts of the country. This year, aside from the security challenges in many parts of the country, the floods in fifteen states have further impeded our work.

Aside from the difficulties that we are unable to anticipate, there is another environmental factor that is insidious in nature and more difficult to tackle. The formal terminology is multiple taxation and regulation. In lay man's terms, it means a situation where local and state Government parastatals and task forces devise all manner of regulations to tax and or regulate the industry in ways that are at variance with extant law. Even though these regulations and taxes are of doubtful legality, base stations and other infrastructure are invaded and shut down in the most arbitrary fashion that smacks of blackmail.

It is for this reason and in recognition of the critical role of telecommunication infrastructure to our national economic rebirth that the NCC has championed the crusade to push through legislation that gives our infrastructure a 'critical' status in the same way that PHCN and NITEL infrastructure is protected. This initiative has received endorsement at the highest level of Government, as there is a tacit acknowledgement that the Government must play its own part in creating an enabling environment.

Speaking of playing a part, our regulator the NCC has done so by any parameter. Sadly, the NCC comes under heavy criticism for not 'punishing erring operators'. Mr. Iroh says as much in his article. The impression is often given that if only the NCC would act in the mould of a military dictator then all will be well. Permit us to say that this is a very simplistic approach. Repeated sanctions and directives will not resolve the fundamental problems that pose hurdles for us. The public should be aware that the NCC and our Minister put considerable energy into tackling the root causes by quietly liaising with the relevant organs of Government and lending their voice and support to the developmental initiatives that are enablers for our industry.

That is not to say that the NCC should not perform the grim task of holding operators to account, giving directives and sanctions. However, the NCC understands that they must act in the best interest of the industry, Nigeria and the customer. This is a very difficult balancing act which the NCC seems to have perfected. Indeed, the NCC has won several regional and international awards for the quality of regulation that has enabled the local telecommunications industry to grow in leaps and bounds.

Clearly, we have not reached the promise land and there is much work to be done, more investment to be made and more patience from our customers required. Our customers should rest assured that providing a consistently good quality of service, and justifying the confidence reposed in us by the public, our investors and all those who believe in the 'telecommunication miracle' in Nigeria, is why we are here. The best is yet to come.

•Goodluck is the Corporate Services Executive, MTN Nigeria

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