Danbatta lists ways to sustaining tempo of telecoms growth

Prof. Umar Danbatta, NCC EVC

Prof. Umar Danbatta, NCC EVC

How the current growth rate of the telecom sector can be sustained is the focus of Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, the Executive Vice Chairman and CEO, of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). He outlined his vision for the sector in the October-December 2015 edition of NCC in-house journal, The Communicator. ADEYEMI ADEPETUN reports.

THE Nigerian telecoms sector has indeed witnessed astronomical growth in telephony access and data penetration. Today, active telephone lines are well over 150 million with close to 100 million Nigerians having access to the Internet. The country’s teledensity is put at 108 per cent. Investment in the sector is put at over $32 billion.

The impact of telecoms sector on other sectors such as banking, e-commerce, agriculture, education, oil and gas and so on and the volume of jobs the sector is creating has been described as unprecedented.

As such, expanding and sustaining these notable achievements appear to be the task ahead of the new Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of the Nigerian Communications, Prof Umar Danbatta, who promised to hit the ground running as fast as possible.

Danbatta, a Professor of Electrical Engineering, has highlighted key priority areas under his leadership at the NCC. In an interview with The Communicator, Danbatta listed focus areas to include reviving the moribund Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) sub-Sector; run an open access model for broadband deployment; encourage operator investment; improve the quality of services and as expected fine ‘errant’ operators among others.

Reviving the CDMA sub-Sector
The CDMA sub-Sector in Nigeria can be said to be left with nothing, though the only living operator, Visafone is left with less than two million subscribers. The sector has continued to maintain a downward profile in the last five years. But in his vision, Danbatta admitted that Fixed networks have been neglected, stressing that nobody is interested in them despite the promises they hold.

According to him, operators are more interested in providing mobile services and the subscriber base by operator attests to this, with MTN having over 60 million subscribers, Glo and Airtel having over 30 million, Etisalat has 20 million subscribers and then Visafone about 2.5 million subscribers.
“If we can deliberately introduce incentives to any operator to come in and roll out fixed telecoms services we can do it.

The Commission is open to negotiations on how this could be done.
“We intend to convince the government to key into this important initiative of the Commission. Through this medium, I send a message to operators who will be willing to buy into this important idea of availing themselves the opportunity to get the incentives that we intend to put in place in order to revive fixed telephony services.”, he stated.

Tackling the Issue of QoS
Admitting that telephone services are at the level they ought to be, Danbatta said the QoS is also characterised by key performance indicators (KPIs) which we know are defined by terminologies associated with drop calls, inability to get calls through and vice versa; when someone calls you and he or she is not able to get through to you. And there are other technical issues that are not conversant to ordinary Nigerians all of which we must tackle to improve QoS. 
  According to him, the non-technical issues are the ones that Nigerians are more conversant with; the inability to have Right of Way to access sites and locations for the deployment of infrastructure like fibre networks. He noted that there is the issue of multiple taxations at the state and federal levels, and even local government and ward levels; and next to these two is the vandalisation of telecoms infrastructure.

I even went as far as in one of the management meetings to put in place an improvement of QoS initiative in the form of a taskforce working presently in tandem with other departments of the Commission, all to ensure that the QoS improves. We have given them a timeline to report back to the management for us to be able to verify if the measures we’re putting in place are yielding the desired result and if not so, what we need to do to change our strategy. But the most important message that should go out to the public is that something is deliberately being done to improve QoS’, Danbatta stated.

Still on poor QoS, the EVC admitted that capacity is definitely a problem. Capacity, According to him, in terms of ability to communicate over the networks. He said the commission will look at the technical factors even as “we’re convinced that if we’re looking for remarkable improvement in QoS, then we must roll out broadband services. The infraCos have a key role here; two have already been licensed; Lagos and the North central, Lagos because it is a strategic location and North Central because that is where the seat of power is.”

He assured that as soon as other InfraCos are licensed, there will be a remarkable improvement in QoS He explained that the process involves fibre going into the metropolitan cities like Port Harcourt, Enugu, Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, among others. Presently he said a committee has been set up to look at, as a matter of urgency, the issue of infraCo licensing for the five other zones even as we’re making conscious and deliberate attempt to ensure that those already licensed roll out broadband services.

Measures against Right of Way challenges
Danbatta said the commission is exploring two means to tackling this issue. According to him, a letter has been sent to the Governors’ Forum and the intention is to pay a courtesy call on them in order to drive the message home that this multiple taxation impedes on our conscious effort to deploy broadband services as well as to set this important argument that the taxes that they’ll be realising through broadband services will outweigh so much the little money they’re collecting by creating obstacles for broadband deployment. “If they can understand this argument; which is a very strong and convincing argument we intend to put across, then we have to be able to convince them to relax some of these stringent measures they’re putting as it refers to the infraCos by way of relaxing impediments to Right of Way and multiple taxations.

We have strategized on what we intend to say to the Governors’ Forum and I think this kind of engagement is germane to drive the point home that there’ll be a complete benefit of the scale that will far outweigh the little money they’re getting now. The level of penetration will speak for itself and people will pay taxes alongside these improvements that we’re going to witness in broadband penetration and the proliferation of ICT services all over the major cities in Nigeria and the taxes associated with those services will far outweigh the little money they’re getting by introducing those taxes”, he stated.

According to him, the operators need to be protected, as they are trying to make efforts to provide an additional infrastructure that is needed to improve QoS and by introducing all kinds of taxes, the states are not encouraging them and that will not solve the problem of QoS. 
  The second, according to Danbatta is that there are devices that can improve reception in high-rise buildings; hotels, offices among others. There are electronic gadgets that can improve reception in those places and once reception improves in such places where people gather the result and effect also will be an improvement in QoS.

He said the NCC will recommend those gadgets to be installed in hotels, high-rise buildings, among others.  He stressed that the service providers should do the installation because they’re the ones selling services. “We can advise them on what kind of devices to be installed. The other critical issue which many of the operators talk about is the extent which the equipment they install in the base stations are being stolen and vandalized.”
Fining ‘errant’ operators

Though, this may not be entertaining to the operators, Danbatta noted that it is only erring operators that will be sanctioned when the need arises. “We’re not going to fine operators on flimsy excuses when and if cases of infringement are established; they are fined on cases of infringement consistent with the law. People forget that the regulator conducts this important affair of regulation, consistent with the Act and there are other regulations already gazetted; the SIM card registration regulation, the law establishing the USPF and other laws regulating monitoring and compliance.

It is when we establish infringement by the regulators or actions that are incompatible with the Act that we invoke appropriate provisions of the law pertaining to those infringements and their appropriate sanctions.  “We don’t want to be doing that, but the regulator cannot just stand by and watch as these various infringements are being committed with impunity. No responsible regulator will stand by and watch.

Our main responsibility is to the Nigerian consumers, there should be fairness when and if infringements are committed then we look at the laws and apply appropriate sanctions. At times we warn and other times we even give an opportunity to the operators to explain why disciplinary measures cannot be meted out. An operator is supposed to be a de facto regulator. One thing is to encourage competition in the telecoms sector in this country and you cannot do that by always applying the ‘big stick’ method. We invite operators for meetings in order to explore areas of mutual cooperation to improving telecoms services including rendering professional advice as to how this could be done”, he stated.

Spectrum auctions, frequency supervision and licensing
Commenting on the 700MHz frequency supervision and licensing, Danbatta said that it is an important spectrum because of its penetration; the higher the frequency the higher the penetration in terms of distance. He explained that this band is so ideal for broadband penetration, adding that before his appointment, the spectrum was auctioned by the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), they had the approval granted by the government. 
Danbatta said the commission now has an understanding that the frequency should not have been auctioned for broadcast services because it is a telecommunication spectrum.

He said NCC will not publicly engage NBC, even though it is under a different ministry, because they don’t think it is the right approach, the Frequency Management Council which is a very important organ of government that has a representation from the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, as well as the Communication Technology Ministry, will look into the matter. “The Director -General of the NBC is a very close friend of mine and I don’t think that by going public we’re really going to help matters.”

According to him, what the commission will do is if there is a need to find a way to get them to move to the upper range of that frequency which is not up to 700MHz. “The upper range for broadcasting is 694MHz that will free the 700MHz spectrum for use to facilitate communication services. That is the approach we intend to adopt to resolve the matter and I’ve spoken with the NBC DG and he has expressed readiness to come to the Commission to talk about it so that we can together be able to fashion out a way forward that will be devoid of any acrimony or rancour which normal Nigerians are used to when issues of this nature come up. We do not intend to do that or play to the gallery; we thought they are issues that are better resolved amicably and peacefully’, he stated.

Open Access Model of Broadband Deployment
Danbatta admitted meeting the model in place, saying that it is a good one having gone through it. According to him, every policy of the commission is well thought out and articulated from the relevant departments of the commission.  “You cannot just come in as a new Chief Executive and then just begin to change those policies until there are indications from the same departments that these policies should be reviewed. These policies are not defined and the dynamic nature of the industry dictates that policies are revisited if the need arises and we’ll do it that way. We’re not going to adopt a populist approach in order to attract publicity. We’ll ensure we do our work well and be consistent with global best practices.”

Message to the World
Danbatta said NCC intends to keep and maintain its enviable position in the comity of countries that are members of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), stressing that this is a very important position that the commission occupies. He said NCC is like a benchmark for quality telecoms services in Africa and a force to reckon with in terms of telecommunications services. “I am letting the world know that the business climate has really improved; corruption is gradually being nipped in the bud. Business proliferates where rules are observed and rules of engagement are also very kinder; you don’t have to pay anything in any form to get a business. There’s a rave of change all over the country and it is a good invitation to investors. The time to invest and invest more in Nigeria is now”, he stated.

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