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Protecting the telecom industry in Nigeria

Protecting the telecom industry in Nigeria

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Chukwuemeka Fred Agbata Jnr.

Majority of those given birth to just about twenty years ago will find it hard to believe that once upon a time, Nigeria was a country that had, roughly, only about 400,000 telephone lines with millions of requests for telephone lines unattended to.

They would also find it difficult to believe that federal minister allegedly once said to that telephone service was not for the poor.

Today, all that has changed because a government had the will power to do what is right and some entrepreneurs took a great risk, against the advice of experts, to invest.

One, however, may argue that entrepreneurship is about taking risks, so, there is nothing further to talk about, when risks are usually part and parcel of the game.

I have always been a great admirer of all those who took the risk to pay $285mfor their licences when a number of top-rated entrepreneurs and experts had categorised Nigeria as too risky. This led me to pitch my tent with one of the telecoms providers, spending about five years of my working career there.

The telecom industry is, however, one of the most challenging, of the emerging industries in Nigeria. Its challenges range from multiple taxes, heavy levies on ICT infrastructure, scarcity of forex, to destruction of fibre lines.

The sector has been evolving for about 18 years now, recording uninterrupted growth, as well as disruptions, due to ever changing dynamic innovations.

Some of these innovations are offering super fantastic and flexibility convenience to Nigerians. Even kids are enjoying the evolution of the telecom industry in Nigeria today; a rarity even in dreamland 18 years ago.

Looking back to the earlier days, putting a call through on a mobile phone was a daunting task, as one may need to move to a particular location before a call could go through or have a better reception.

Today, the case is different. You could sit comfortably in your house and make a video call.  The industry is full of potentials, which are still undergoing the process of exploration.  A lot of disruptions are taking place, which positions the telecom industry at the pinnacle, if one is to juxtapose it with other sectors.

Historically, the telecom industry was still at infancy by 2001, with a paltry investment of $500million. This was the period when MTN Nigeria came to the Nigerian market and the entry of the South African firm subsequently paved the way for other investors.

Statistics show that there are about 150 million connected lines, representing a tele-density of 111 per cent with the industry contributing 9.8 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product annually.

Many industry analysts believe that the industry has the capacity to contribute up to 15-20 per cent to the GDP by 2020-21, depending on certain decisions and investments we make today.

It is instructive to note that the ecosystem has grown as a result of the concerted efforts of different stakeholders such as the regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission, the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria, the Ministry of Communications, Nigeria Institute of Technology Development Agency and the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria among others.

Each of these agencies and stakeholders has contributed significantly to the glittering feat of the industry which has attracted international applaud over the years.

There has been several collaborations and synergy among the stakeholders with the primary objective of driving the industry forward. Most of these ties, no doubt, have yielded the desired results, while Nigerians await the rest to fall in place positively.

One issue that has continued to plague the industry is the notorious right of way, a fee that can go anywhere from N2m to N5m per kilometre, depending on the state and its complexities.

I came across a recent report of the Governors Forum agreeing to critically reduce the cost of ROW so as to encourage telecoms operators to lay more fibre cables. This is exciting although I wonder if it is not coming a little too late. With the disruption caused by over the top players, one wonders if providers are still keen on investing heavily now. We, wait to see how it pans out.

I will also love to call out the operators on the issue of poor quality of service. I have always wondered why I have to pay an operator who does not connect me properly and charges me for dropped calls. Honestly, it does not make sense.

True, the industry is highly challenged but that is no excuse for little or no customer satisfaction, or trying to game customers. A particular operator whose data service I subscribe to will switch me to N1/mb immediately after my data runs out, or my validity expires, against NCC’s directives that only customers should get to activate the service.

I also call on the industry to put an end to the embarrassing issue of call masking. A number of times international calls appear as local numbers and I know one operator that is most guilty based on personal experience.

At this juncture, I will like to commend the efforts of various industry stakeholders that have pioneered this industry for the past 17 years. The sector is not there yet but it is moving expediently forward to achieve more.

There is, however, urgent need to start attending to the challenges, which are surmountable, in the telecom sector to make it more effective. We can articulate policies that will create enabling environment for investors by eliminating double taxation, removing heavy levies on ICT infrastructure and protecting fibre lines.

All these will eventually make it possible for broadband penetration that will relatively improve the economy.

Internet cost is still pretty much high, especially, at the enterprise level. So the government has to ensure that Nigeria begins to move up, once again, on the broadband penetration country index.

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