Leadership (Abuja)

28 January 2013

Nigeria: The Many Headaches of the Nigerian Telecom Industry

The advent of wireless technology and the introduction of mobility in the past two decades have given birth to innovative services propelled by emergence of smart phones (devices) which are spreading faster than any technology in human history.Mobile computers are saturated in both developed and developing world in record time. Today's technology scene is interesting as it spreads and matures quickly and the speed to market is astonishing.

The mobile phone is a landmark technology that has completely transformed the way we live. We talk, we text, we surf the web; we watch video/TV and hosts of other activities from our mobile set. These activities cannot be done without bandwidth vis-à-vis spectrum. Spectrum is the lifeblood of the wireless industry without which everything would die. It is an important but invisible stuff. The mobile industry depends on it just like the oil industry. It is the crude oil of the Telecom industry; it is a public property. All over the world, governments regard it as a water front property. They guard it and trade it to get the best reasonable price in order to use the proceeds to fund part of their annual budget.

There are procedures to follow to arrive at the price of spectrum. A consultant is normally appointed to do all the works and recommend to the government the price expected for cash band, taking into consideration what is best for the industry, the consumers and the country.

The sale and allocation of frequency prior to liberalization of the telecom market was the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Communication and there was no commercialization of it and its importance then was rarely appreciated or known. It was the liberalization and the deregulation of the ministry that revealed that spectrum has link with economic growth and the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) quickly accorded it the necessary recognition and formed the basis of its World Radio Conference, where various study groups come out with recommendations and agreed measures to manage this resource. Nigeria attended all these conferences and was a signatory to them.

Based on the ITU recommendation and in line with the present realities, Nigeria set up a National Frequency Management Board under the new Telecom Act 2000 to manage, monitor, allocate and sell the spectrum. Unfortunately for us, the arrangement was killed by creating a somewhat awkward multiple sector regulation of the spectrum, namely, the Ministry of Communication, the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) and the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC). This arrangement is at odds with international best practices and is fraught with many problems - fraud, lack of co-ordination between the agencies, etc. The arrangement is a recipe for disaster and frauds.

The recent spectrum scandal is as a result of this arrangement and if no action is taken the whole telecom and broadcasting industries will be thrown into chaos and confusion. There is therefore an urgent need to do something to streamline the procedure and make it easy and simple to avoid or eliminate this multi-sector handling of the spectrum strictly by auditing the spectrum as is done internationally. This again requires expertise to do it properly. As mentioned, there are many examples and case studies to convince the government and the populace that the auction secretly carried out by NCC is a monumental fraud and should be revisited.

The Way Forward

From all indications, the President is not being advised properly on this issue and it appears that he doesn't even know the importance of spectrum and what revenue it can bring to the government. The federal government is in dire need of revenue to address the several infrastructural problem of the country. The involvement of the Secretary to the Federal Government, the Minister of Communication Technology, the EVC NCC in this fraud is unacceptable. They all swore to serve the country diligently and honestly but by misusing the resources of the country in this spectrum saga they have betrayed the trust of the President and the country. The hurried recommendation to sack Dr Gwandu was itself a panicky decision and measure to protect themselves.

The President promised to make 2013 better. I hope he will start with these officials who have betrayed his trust and confidence. Dr Gwandu should not have been punished but those officials who mismanaged the spectrum resources.

It would interest Mr. President to note that one lesson from the last concluded US election was the way Americans reacted to 47% comment and the Bain Venture issues discussed by Mitt Romney. These probably cost him the presidency. I hope the President would do something to save the telecom industry from these official wolves in sheep clothing. I hope this official thievery, fraud and scams are the areas Mr. President will improve in 2013.

This country has a tradition of sweeping serious matters under the carpet but this spectrum saga must not be treated in the same way. Today, poor telephone services from our operators are associated with terrorism and vandalism, but it is much more deeper than that. The behavior of officials managing the industry is one of the major contributing factors to the poor quality. I also hope that the president would recognize in 2013 that there are some Nigerian telecom experts who had proven themselves abroad and contributed immensely to the process of deregulating the industry in Nigeria that could also help change things but who are currently sidelined.

- Adamu is a retired executive director, NITEL and former technical adviser to the Minister of Communication.

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