For telecoms operators, the challenge of  infrastructure vandalism is sour pill

Base Transceiver Stations  PHOTO: GOOGLE

Base Transceiver Stations  PHOTO: GOOGLE

Adeyemi Adepetun in this report highlights the challenges facing telecom firms in Nigeria and efforts made so far to overcome them.

Contributions of Nigeria’s telecommunications sector to the economy have been phenomenal in the last 10 years.

At the last rebasing exercise of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the telecommunications sector bagged the ‘Star Performer’ status because of its immense contributions to the country’s development.

At a recent forum in Lagos, the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta, disclosed that while the sector’s investment since telecoms revolution is in excess of $32 billion, it has equally contributed over N500 billion to government revenue from earnings majorly from spectrum administration. He added that the sector has created directly and indirectly over two million jobs.

The players in the sector, especially the telecommunications operators have claimed to pay taxes in excess of several billions of naira. For instance, from inception till June 2015, MTN Nigeria claimed to have contributed N1.370 trillion in taxes and levies.

Indeed, from a paltry 400,000 lines in 1999 to over 150 million telephones lines as at January 2016, Nigeria has crossed the 100 per cent teledensity mark and through the narrow band caters for about 100 million Internet subscribers.

This landmark growth really did not come without its many challenges. While the operators have not been able to find a lasting solution to the perennial issue of poor quality of service that has resulted in increased drop calls, credit depletions, unsolicited SMS, among others, the operators, especially the quartet of MTN Nigeria, Airtel, Globacom and Etisalat has not feigned ignorance to these challenges. They have come out individually and collectively to lament several challenges to their operations in the country.

While government and its agencies appeared to have seen these operators as ‘cash cows’ through multiple taxations, the operators have decried the spate of theft and vandalisation of their facilities at several parts of the country. Vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure and inadequate spectrum have been described as the greatest challenge facing Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) in Nigeria.

MTN Nigeria recently claimed to have experienced series of fiber optic cable cuts, which it attributed to construction and possibly vandalism in the Eastern part of the country. This, it claimed, has subsequently resulted in a loss of service to that region.

During the working visit of the Minister of Communication, Barrister Adebayo Shittu at the MTN Nigeria Head Office, Corporate Services Executive, MTN Nigeria, Amina Oyagbola, solicited the support of the government in addressing the monster of infrastructural vandalism to further improve service delivery to end users.

At a forum in 2015 in Lagos, the Director, Network Engineering, Etisalat Nigeria Limited, Teni Ogunbambi, informed the audience that the biggest difficulty that telecoms operators face was the issue of vandalism or people who feel they are entitled to take generators and diesel off Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) for their own personal use.

Ogunbambi noted that although, lots of investments have gone into securing BTS sites, these issues still persist.

To solve the problems of theft and vandalism, he insisted that communities must have a sense of ownership of the sites because the infrastructure enhances their lives and businesses.

Truly, market observers are of the opinion that operators’ ability to build capacity and viable infrastructure to support broadband rollout is threatened by insurgencies and government’s undue interference, in an attempt to re-regulate the industry in their various states, while undermining the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator that is empowered by the NCC Act of 2003.

Calls have remained consistent from several quarters on the need for the National Assembly to pass the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) Bill by the National Assembly, amid rising cases of theft and vandalism of equipment owned by mobile operators. The bill, when passed into law, is expected to criminalise any act of vandalism against Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructures since they would then be classified as CNI.

Market analysts are, however, suggesting that investors are already raising questions about the country, in view of its somewhat harsh business climate. According to them, government’s delay in passing the bill into law is counter-productive, as telecommunications has since become fundamental and a most reliable public infrastructure in the country.

Indeed, if passed into law, Nigeria will be in the league of  African countries such as Kenya who in 2013 proposed a bill to protect telecoms infrastructure in the country. The Kenya government said the law would classify telecoms infrastructure as utilities so that penalties for tampering with the assets are severe enough to discourage any interference.

Speaking to The Guardian from his base in London, United Kingdom, Kehinde Aluko warned that mobile operators might be compelled to slow down on investments in the country if there were constant threats to infrastructure, amidst the raft of multiple taxes and regulation, power constraints and the generally unfriendly business environment.

In view of this, Aluko implored the government to pursue to a logical conclusion, legislation and policy that will accord the status of CNI to telecommunications infrastructure, in order to ensure adequate protection. “This will stimulate competition and ensure that national growth objectives are achieved,” he stressed.

The Guardian findings revealed that the number of Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, is estimated at about 30,000. This figure is grossly inadequate to meet the communications needs of over 150 million active mobile subscribers in the country.

It was further gathered that about three per cent of Nigeria’s BTS are shut down at any point in time, due to vandalism, resulting in a loss of about $50 million to $100 million every year.

Speaking with The Guardian, the Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said telecoms infrastructure should be seen as critical equipment just like the oil pipelines, as well as PHCN and NITEL (Nigerian Telecommunications Limited) facilities.

Some months back, the NCC noted that it had recorded about 1, 200 fibre cuts in few months.

Worried about the challenges faced by telecoms operators, Adebayo and other members of ALTON, recently paid a courtesy visit to the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, and the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, at different times, to seek government’s intervention.

During the visit to Osinbajo, Adebayo stressed the need for corporate governance that would provide a level playing ground for telecoms operators to thrive. Speaking about corporate governance and support for government, Adebayo said: “Your Excellency, I would like to emphasize that the principles of good corporate government is key to our members, therefore, we will continue to operate according to the laws of the land in line with best practices and shall continue to work according to the provision of the Nigerian communications act establishing the NCC. We pledge our loyalty and support for the government and people of Nigeria as an industry that is in the forefront of our national security and technological development.”

While presenting Osinbajo with copies of industry report on ‘Socio-Economic Impact of Telecoms in Nigeria’, Adebayo called on him to tackle the challenges in order to usher the Nigerian ICT industry into the next decade of growth, while calling for speedy implementation of the declaration of telecoms infrastructure as critical national infrastructure that deserves government protection.

“We hereby appealed to the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, for a presidential declaration of “telecom Infrastructure as Critical National Security and Economic Infrastructure” as provided by the cybercrime law of 2015,” Adebayo said.

During ALTON’s recent visit to the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, the association also called on the Police boss to address the challenges of telecoms site closure. Adebayo said government agents were in the habit of using the Police to intimidate telecoms site workers and to close down telecoms sites.

Speaking on the closure of telecoms sites, Adebayo said: “The incidence of closure of our members’ BTS sites and other telecommunications infrastructure on the excuse of non-payment of arbitrarily imposed taxes and levies imposed by states and local government authorities in the name of Internally generated revenue (IGR) is having adverse effect on our quality of service.”

Adebayo called on Arase to direct all Police commands to kindly and strictly enforce taxation demands, pursuant to court orders only.

Responding, the IGP stressed that he wanted the association, through its members, to continue to help the Police in the Kidnapping cases. He said the Police should be able to intercept any kidnapper within 48 hours of the crime if there are adequate telecoms infrastructures on ground.

Arase stressed that the Police authority is ready to collaborate with ALTON, to address its challenges, while calling for more effective collaboration among stakeholders.

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