‘ComTech industry growth is declining, future looks turbulent’
Titi Omo-Ettu is a foremost telecommunications expert and consultant, who has over four decades of experience. He was at one time President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON). He currently chairs the Governing Board of Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), a Federal Government established under the watch of the Nigerian Communications Commission.
In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, Omo-Ettu, an engineer, spoke on the regulation of the telecoms sector, the challenges, and advice on a possible way forward for the sector. Excerpts:
Tell us about the origin of telecom regulation in Nigeria
It dated back to 1991, when the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), got so concerned about degrading infrastructure and public services delivery and set up committees to draw road maps for telecommunications, energy and aviation. That of telecommunications, in which I served, fell for liberalization, which we had spent the time to research, and NSE mounted persistent pressure on Government until a decree that established the Nigerian Communications Commission was promulgated about end of 1992. And that was it. Things started to change for the better.
Was it a smooth-sail kind of thing?
No, not at all! First, the military class was against liberalisation for only God knew what their reasons were. They avoided engaging us intellectually, which was our own turf in NSE. They were just saying telecommunications was a security matter and liberalisation was anathema. Some guys mentioned President Salvador Allende of Chile and how a private American giant telecom company planned his fall and such bla bla bla. We were not convinced but you probably know that when engineers fight, we use intellect and not much else. One thing led to the other and President Babangida signed a decree that established Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), about the same time and the journey started.
On the other hand, those who ran NITEL created problems of their own. They were reinforced when along the line an unbeliever in telecom liberalisation was brought to head the company. It was a lockdown, sort of. We retreated and went back to the trenches in 1999 when the Obasanjo government showed promise and we latched on that to make a substantial move. If we had been like the late sage, Mr. Gani Fawehinmi, many of us would have died in detention but no, we were not even locked up for one day. It was a battle of wits and brain and we are glad we engaged.
When liberalisation finally took off, how was the whole thing?
Some of us read the future correctly except that we did not imagine the huge foray of communication infrastructure into our lives as it is today. All our forecasts ran very short of what eventually emerged as the reality. I remembered that NCC was established without any funding. Its first funding of N50 million was a gift from NITEL, a company that was supposed to be under its regulation. I hope you know the implications of that? In fact, some smart guys almost told us that the liberalisation law did not envisage that NITEL was under regulation. Of course, that was balderdash and we told them so. I think Malam Nasir elRufai recently referred to one of the engagement papers where I told NITEL that it was presenting “Interconnect Conditionalities” when what it wrote was titled ‘Interconnect Agreement’. It was a bad moment for investment, but we wrestled through, nonetheless. Of course, some investors were the scapegoats.
Looking at the level of skills required in the industry with respect to the advancement in ICT sector vis-a-vis available skills in-country. Would you say there is a balance or a mismatch?
These things are not measured by any organisation except if the Bureau of Statistics is measuring them without me knowing. My understanding is that it is environment and not schools, and not training institutions that develop skills. If there are no industries for big scope professional practice it can only be by the magic that people will have the highest level of skills so if we conclude that development of skills is limited, there is justification. We are certainly not there! The good story is that I know for certain that Nigerians are very trainable and easy to develop if things change for better at the industry level.
What has changed since your assumption of office as the Chairman of DBI Governing Board?
We have been on the DBI journey for 14 months so far. We are lucky the NCC constituted a Governing Board of sound minds for the institute.
We have taken the institute from cold engine to a cruising level. We closed a staff-management crisis that had kept it down since 2012. We have restored staff confidence, improved the institute’s earnings, improved and increased its curriculum, improved its visibility, expanded its relationships, hired a new management and made up our minds to allow the management to run independently. I am personally satisfied with our contribution as a Governing Board.
We have renewed our mandate to include the running of a Talent Acceleration Program. It is already, planned, sealed, and waiting for the Commission’s blessing to start off. No doubt the things that kept the institute down all along are still hanging around but that is the battle we are engaged to do. We shall do it.
With your deep knowledge of the industry, and as a former ATCON president, what level of industry collaboration do you think is required to sustain the independence of telecoms regulator?
The Telecommunications Act of 2003, which I was very familiar with has various provisions that guarantee the independence of the regulator. Such independence can only be threatened by individuals, who either do not know the law or who may genuinely act in disobedience of the provisions of the law. When such happens, hopefully, there will be people who will draw attention to the provisions so that things can be normalized. If the regulator performs poorly, it may lose some of its independence without knowing it. So, it depends largely on the regulator to assert its independence by its performance and in blowing the whistle when a foul is played. It is important however, to advise that the independence of the regulator is very very important, and it should not be compromised, thwarted, or curtailed.
Base on this, is it possible to determine the cost of telecoms services by fiat without recourse to the provision of the Nigerian Communication Act?
For any change to occur there must be a request for it. The request may come from any source: usually from consumers or their advocates. Sometimes it can come from the intelligentsia or even from the political class. When consumers make such request, a minister may amplify it by giving directives instead of making a request. For me the recent experience I will take as a request, genuinely made, not a directive that it sounded like.
Two things are critical in determining the cost of telecommunication services. One is cost of providing the service and the other is the forces of regulated competition. In a perfect regulatory environment, which does not exist anywhere though, it is difficult to cut corners by any of the parties concerned and, in this case, I am talking of the policymakers, the regulator, the service providers, and the consumers. However, any of these classes of players can want things done differently and the fact that they express such desire should not be a crime under any circumstance.
For example, my reading of the minister’s pronouncement is a request, which he thinks is favorable to the consumers to whom the government has responsibility. I am sure he was talking to the consumers. But whether that is realisable or not will be determined by the forces of cost of providing service and competition, which the regulator must serve as a team of experts to advise the government on. So, the regulator will examine the request and do an intervention where this is necessary. If the regulator is up to its mandate, it will be resolved without much problem.
There was a time in this country when the price of SMS was reduced by a request expressed by the regulator. The operators reacted positively, and the regulator went ahead to ratify a new price by an official announcement. It did not go through the usual process of study, review, consult and pronounce which takes time and costs money.
The directives by the minister on data pricing and other-related issues have pitched the operators against the minister, who feel in the face of challenging operating environment where RoW, vandalism and so on, have increased their cost of operations, and cannot be hounded into crashing the cost of their services by executive fiat. How do you think we can possibly address this nagging issue?
By engaging in discussions with an open mind!
What are your advice to government, regulators and operators to move the sector forward?
Policy changes, which are smart and happen at regular periods is suggested to the government. Five years is a good period, for example, for the cycle. It should, however, be determined by time not by regime change, or on which government is in power. Telecommunications policy is more a technical and economic issue rather than a political matter. Except in cases where a regime has very strong points to vary things radically, we should use our policy changes to drive growth and development. In that case, the investment will be protected because abnormal changes will be avoided, and investors will not have undue fears.
I will advise the regulator to keep to the tradition of study, review, consult and pronounce. I really do not have advice for operators beyond advising them to keep to the laws of the land. They do not have to be patriots, but they must be law abiders. When I say operators, I mean all those investors, who have a license to play in the communication technology and digital economy industry.
In your view, is the industry growing?
There is no way you can stop growth in an environment that has already got to the periphery of a digital community. But there are two components of growth: the one that induces itself and the one that we, as managers of the industry, cause to happen. It is in the latter that we are not doing well. In fact there had been a decline for some time when you assess the component that should come from government and as we speak, I see a turbulent future in the short run. The good story is that this is an industry that was built by its own players. So, government inactions can only slow it down, it cannot kill it. I am not worried about growth because it is a given. I am worried about development which is not.
In retirement, apart from the DBI assignment, what other things do you engage in?
What I retired into is to provide counseling to the youth of my native place in the areas of career development, entrepreneurship, and community development. I was about to commence this when the DBI assignment and other similar ones came from the industry. And the DBI assignment actually took a good chunk of time until recently. In due course, I will commence the engagement of my primary interest and vision in addition to other assignments that have not lapsed.
We understand you were one of the foremost consultants to NCC. How was it in those early days?
Yes, maybe, but not on strictly regulatory matters. I was leading study groups and using the results to plan. I also served to mobilise the industry in several ways. It was very challenging but certainly a comfort zone all the same.
NCC in the very early days must have done three times the works that are being done now. The Commission set the fundamentals and went to hire experts from several parts of the world to give support on strictly technical matters. I remember the first issue we settled was on Technology Neutrality. The second was to employ the best available young minds and provide the best quality training to the Commission’s staff. I remember we did a lot of work on the Independence of the Commission and we wrote good documents in this regard. Something tells me it was a good strategy to ensure the Commission’s independence, which was sustained, fortunately, by its own good performance. We quickly rose to have a respectable and respected world-class regulator. We also educated media practitioners very well such that they wrote and reported so competently and they too turned out to be respectable and respected. And a few of the media practitioners indeed made credible investments that were noteworthy. The most notable thing I remember is the crafting of a very good law for the industry in 2003.
Tell us a few names of your compatriots.
No, I will avoid doing that. I can only mention a few that have died. If I mention some who are still living, I certainly will forget to mention some and that will put me in a bad position. Among those who are dead, we can mention Engineer Alfred Adebayo Bodede. He stood out. Among those who are still alive, we can, however, mention Engineer Olawale Ige, who was the Minister of Communications that bought into our vision and drafted the law establishing NCC, and he is still living. And of course, Engineer Vincent Maduka midwife the Commission. He too is still living. Those two stand out and they are in their own class and generation, so one can mention them. My own generation belongs to those I will not mention. Many have died though. Dr Burian Carew, for example.