Nigeria: MTN Bows to Pressure, Suspends USSD Charges

23 October 2019

MTN Nigeria yesterday confirmed that it has suspended its plan to implement charges around the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) code being used for bank transactions.

The suspension came on the heels of the directive given by the Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Pantami, calling on the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator, to ensure that the planned implementation of the USSD code charges are suspended.

Senior Manager, External Relations at MTN Nigeria, Mr. Funso Aina, confirmed to THISDAY yesterday that the telecommunications company had complied with the suspension order.

Aina told THISDAY that the implementation process was to commence on Monday, but that MTN did not commence the implementation, based on the minister's directive.

"We did not commence the planned implementation of the charges as earlier stated. We had planned that it would take effect from Monday and we had already notified our subscribers, but eventually we had to put it on hold, based on the minister's directive that we should suspend our implementation plan," Aina told THISDAY.

Also confirming compliance with the suspension order, the spokesperson to the Minister of Communications, Mrs. Uwa Suleiman, said: "MTN has no choice but to comply with the directive of the Honourable Minister of Communications. Now that it has been suspended, we will set up monitoring team to ensure full compliance of the directive."

When asked if the federal government would stop the charges totally or review it downwards from the N4 that MTN had planned, Suleiman said the directive was for MTN to suspend the planned implementation and that details of how the minister would tackle the issue in collaboration with the CBN would be made public as events unfold.

Before the minister's directive, the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Mr. Godwin Emefiele, had directed the commercial banks and other financial institutions under its regulation to shun the move by telecommunication companies to impose charges on USSD services.

Some telcos had recently sent notices to their customers about the new charge.

For instance, MTN had in a notice to its customers said it would charge N4 per 20 seconds for USSD access to banking services with effect from October 21.

USSD is a Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology that is used to send text between a mobile phone and an application programme in the network.

But in a swift response, Emefiele had directed the banks to move their services to telcos that were willing to offer such service at the lowest or even zero charges.

"About five months ago, I held a meeting with some telecoms companies and leading banks in Nigeria, at the CBN in Lagos and the issue on cost of USSD came up. We came to a conclusion that the use of USSD is a sunk cost, meaning that it is not an additional cost on the infrastructure of the telecoms companies. But the telecoms companies disagreed with us and said it was an additional investment in infrastructure and that for that reason, they needed to impose the charge. I appealed to them to please review this downwards and they refused," the CBN governor had explained.

Following Emefiele's directive, the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of commercial banks came out to distance themselves from the moves by MTN Nigeria to impose the charges.

The bank chief executives under the aegis of Body of Bank CEOs that have the MD/CEO of Access Bank Plc, Mr. Herbert Wigwe, as chairman, had said in a statement that they never asked MTN to start charging customers as contained in the text message sent by the telecommunication company.

Meanwhile, the President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Olusola Teniola, has called on the CBN to hold a strategic meeting with the NCC, the Ministry of Communications and the telecoms operators, to develop a framework that is acceptable to mobile network operators (MNOs) on bank charges, using USSD code.

Commenting on the public reactions that greeted the planned implementation of the USSD charges by MTN, Teniola told THISDAY that the whole reactions could be described as a litmus test for the CBN in the proper management of the situation and still remain focused on its financial inclusion strategies, designed to deepen financial inclusion across the country.

He is of the view that if the situation is not properly managed, it could stifle financial inclusion growth across the country.

He said CBN and the banks must understand and accept that technology has come to stay in the financial services industry in rolling out technology solutions that provide access to banking services.

He called on CBN to see telcos as major players and key contributors to financial inclusion growth in the country.

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