Vanguard (Lagos)

4 February 2013

Nigeria: Telecom Operators Fleece Subscribers of N31 Billion in Drop Calls, Others

Photo: Cheon FongLiew/Flickr
A BlackBerry Bold.

On a rough estimate, Nigerian subscribers may have spent well over N31.02bn on dropped and unconnected calls since January last year, owing to poor quality of services from the telecom operators. Most networks in the country claim to have upgraded their network to 3G and 4G that never deliver services. Nigerians using ipad are worse off as downloads are so frustrating that in a day, a subscriber may not be able to connect or download music or video.

This figure of N31.02 billion was roughly estimated from the Average Revenue Per User, ARPU spending of 102.3 million subscribers (as at June last year) which amounted to about N103.4 bn, in relation to an opinion poll conducted by this reporter which saw many subscribers claiming that 30 per cent of their call costs were wasted.

From major part of last year, mostly during the yuletide period and even till now, telecom subscribers in the country have had to resort to hanging on the trees and roof tops to complete their calls. The only time this was the case was at the early stage of GSM operation in Nigeria in 2001 when the networks were just building. Then, in addition to hanging on the trees, Nigerians resorted to high antennas to receive strong signals and incidentally, many buildings and other structures were dotted with embarrassing poles, antennas that did not beautify the Nigerian air space.

The situation compelled the operators into making massive investments in network and backbone infrastructure that launched the country into the top spot of African telecom market and spiralled into branding Nigeria as one of the fastest emerging markets in the world.

Although the quality of service after the investments cannot be described as perfect, subscribers lament that call completion has never been as bad.

30 per cent call costs wasted?

Although the operators have given both human and natural causes of the problem, the reality is that subscribers are still at the receiving end, spending hard earned money on calls that did not deliver value. In fact, it is believed that over 30 per cent of call costs in recent times are wasted in either dropped calls or entirely unconnected calls.

Nigerian subscribers, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, hit 102.3 million mark as at June last year, with an Average Revenue Per User, ARPU, of N1.011 and spent about N103.4 bn in call cost within that period.

If 30 per cent of this is wasted, like many subscribers have alleged, that means that about N31.02b was wasted on calls that did not connect or deliver value.

No respite in sight

Meanwhile, the situation may still linger as both the operators and the regulator are trading blames and spoiling for war against each other. Late last year, the Director, Public Affairs, NCC, Mr Tony Ojobo had declared that the operators may be sanctioned this quarter over poor services if the Key Performance Indicator, KPI, which the commission put in place, indicated that their services were still poor.

Ojobo had said that the regulator would not fold its arms and watch millions of Nigerians who depend on the services of the operators to communicate to loved ones, friends and business associates to suffer losses due to poor telecommunications services, adding that operators should either shape up or face the hammers of the regulator.

According to him, "we will, however, take into account all those times the operators suffered disasters that were no fault of theirs. We know that there were times the operators suffered natural disasters but if the KPI says they had performed below par before those times, we will penalise them and I don't think they should have any quarrel about that because the KPI is an agreement we made with them."

But in a swift reaction, Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria, ALTON, Engr. Gbenga Adebayo said that the operators would employ every legal means to resist any penalty from the regulator which did not take into account the spate of attacks and vandalisation the operators have suffered.

According to Adebayo, from wilful damages to vandalisation, flood and bomb attacks, the operators have been at the receiving end and on each occasion, they would be left to lick their wounds.

Adebayo said that although the damages on the operators' facilities could not be quantified on the immediate, it, however, ran into hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Key performance indicators or not, I don't think that the government would be fair to talk about sanctions now. Everybody is aware of the problems we have been facing, including the recent bomb attacks on our facilities. I think that the government should even be talking of giving us some form of compensation to help us recoup.

"We are not talking of cash compensation, rather some form of tax or import waiver to enable us import back some of these facilities which actually run into several hundreds of millions of dollars to replace. But in any case, we will employ every legal means to resist any penalty we deem as unfair to us by the government," he added.

Where are the investments on new tech?

The irony of the whole situation is that these are happening despite recent announcements by almost all the mobile telecommunications operators in Nigeria that they have embarked on massive investments on their networks.

Subscribers have had to contend with teeth-gritting call completion rates and fluctuating network stability on their mobile phones in recent months. These, notwithstanding the millions of dollars the operators say they are expending on upgrading their networks to energy efficient and environment-friendly solutions.

For instance, MTN in June, announced a major development in its network expansion programme when it told journalists that it had began a comprehensive network overhaul that would gulp about $1.3bn, approximately N204bn.

MTN tagged the exercise, network modernisation and swap out exercise, meaning that old legacy equipment it started business with, 10 years ago , would be phased out for a more recent and hybrid ones.

In fact, the company's Corporate Services Executive, Mr. Wale Goodluck, who announced the development with his team including Chief Technical Officer, Mrs Lynda Saint-Nwafor and General Manager, Corporate Communications, Mrs Funmi Omogbenigun, among others, said the aim of the exercise was to increase capacity and improve services to its over 45 million subscribers.

He even promised that MTN's radio and transmission infrastructure as well as the core network would be fully optimised, adding that major cities, such as Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan, Kano and Aba would be given special attention.

However, Goodluck did give the hint that there may be some technical hitches which may disrupt the network quality due to the exercise, but pleaded that customers bear with the situation for the gains that would accrue at the end of the exercise.

He also assured that part of the massive project involving three technical partners, Ericsson, Huawei and ZTE, would be carried out at night to minimise impact on the quality of service.

Just about that time, Airtel Nigeria had also announced investment of over $600m in just one year to expand the capacity and enhance the robustness of its network in pursuit of world class Quality of Service.

At the launch of the company's Green Site in Lekki, Lagos, the company's Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director, Mr. Deepak Srivastava, hinted journalists that Airtel had entered into a landmark deal with Ericsson to upgrade 250 diesel-powered stations in Nigeria to Green-sites, adding that it was all to enable the company harness solar energy to operate its base stations.

According to him, the Green sites will contribute to a considerable reduction in carbon dioxide emissions and prevent network outages associated with inconsistent power supply.

Srivastava regretted that non-availability of regular grid power supply to sites across the country was responsible for over 70 per cent of down time resulting in poor QoS, adding that the Greensite would go a long way in addressing this critical challenge.

Meanwhile, Globacom and Etisalat also had a fair share of network optimisation to achieve better performance.

In addition to the mega bucks Glo1 submarine cable investment, Globacom also, shelled out early this year, a whopping $6m to contract wireless backhaul giants, Ceragon, to manage the end-to-end deployment of its Fibre air IP-10 and IP Evolution long haul systems across Nigeria.

Etisalat Nigeria also announced a deal with Aviat Networks which charged Aviat to specifically establish a Network Operations Center (NOC) to operate 50 hops of Etisalat's Enterprise Data Network, comprising 100 radios of the Eclipse Packet Node microwave networking solution, on its network nationwide.

In addition, the company will implement its element management system (EMS), for total network surveillance, fault escalation and reporting with up to six months of performance data stored for analysis; and quick replacement of mission-critical components in the field.

This was in addition to the already existing two-year managed services contract with Alcatel-Lucent covering the South-West of the country including Lagos, which is due to expire in May 2013.

Promos take a toll

However, just about when these investments were making meaning to the subscribers, almost all the subscribers also introduced grand campaigns and tempting customer-related promotions to get more customers onto their networks.

MTN came up with a pocket of promos including the Ultimate Wonder promo which promised to give one lucky MTN subscriber, an aeroplane. Airtel debuted with the Airtel 2Good series among others prospected to give subscribers cheaper tariff. Etisalat and Glo were not also left out as they introduced many. But the NCC said that as good as these promotions were, the untold effects on the networks culminated in the collapse that gave subscribers anguish.

On November 8, 2012, the regulator banned all telecom- related promos, saying it was to save subscribers from further anguish.

Subscribers still lament

However, two months after, subscribers still lament that unless they climbed to the roof of high rise buildings or tree tops, getting better services were almost impossible. An angry subscriber, who simply introduced herself as Ms. Clara Nduka told this reporter, "I don't know how my operator manages to do it, but whenever I load air time on my phone, it disappears even without making a single call.

Also, I am regularly over- billed to the extent that I once made a call that finally dropped at 3 seconds but I was billed N15 for it. I think these are outrageous practices. The most annoying aspect is that when I complained, the customer service of my operator said it was because I never had a plan for my iPhone. Whatever that means, I don't know but I have just resorted to loading N100 or N200 units only, whenever I need to make a call. It is as embarrassing as that," she added.

Also, a Lagos State University, LASU, student, Kenneth Okpebho, described network congestion in Nigeria as a 'culture' adding that the best way to overcome it was to live with it.

"I have learnt to live with the network congestion because that is the only way to overcome it. You can't imagine the heartache, when you need to get to your parents over demanding issues in school and you are stuck with a piece of metal in your hand instead of a mobile phone because no matter how hard you try, you hardly get through. Even in those rare times you get through, you will never get your father or mother to understand what you are saying because the line boils like hot water. It has become a culture here in school and we have learned to live with it."

The situation is even biting hard on recharge card dealers who are complaining bitterly that something must be done quickly before they go out of business. Some of them complained that recharge card business was no longer attractive as many people refuse to patronise them.

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