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Legal practitioner wants protection for local telecommunications operators

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A legal practitioner, Ayoola Oke, with expertise in communications law, has said that many telecommunications operators, especially the smaller players, may run out of business without urgent measures to preserve their operations.

As such, Oke urged the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to come to their rescue as fast as possible.

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Oke, who disclosed this during an interaction with journalists in Lagos to review the outcome of the yearly workshop for judges, organised by the NCC in conjunction with the National Judicial Institute, said the telecoms regulator should do more with regards to issues surrounding interconnect fees and disconnection.

In line with this, Oke, a Special Adviser to the former Executive Vice-Chairman, NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, said Nigeria Communications Act 2003 must also be deepened to guarantee the existence of local operators. He stressed that the Act should be reviewed to accommodate some new developments in the global telecoms industry.

“The Nigerian Communications Commission Act 2003 should be deepened to protect local or small operators. In telecommunications and Information Communications and Technology, it is almost as if the regulator holds down the big operators and this explains why the small operators are dying without meaningful impact on the country’s economy.

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“Why it is important to protect the small telecommunication companies is that big operators always end up with legacy issues. They would have invested money into big projects. So, when technology changes, they would be able to adapt because of their financial wherewithal but the local operators won’t be able to.

“Section 91, 92, which talks about how NCC should regulate competition, I think there is a need to add some principles, especially when it comes protecting the small and upcoming operators,” he said.

According to him, Nigerian companies are the smaller operators in the industry, “these bigger players, especially the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), most times just disconnect the smaller players. The smaller operators get assistance from the NCC late, and this affects their sustainability.

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“This was what happened to the likes of Multilinks, Starcomms, Intercellular, and the rest, though they had their issues too. Many of them ran a one-man show and paid dearly. There are traces now among those left, they are struggling to stay afloat, if help didn’t come as and when due, many more players might quit the scene.”

Oke said since the small players were indigenous companies, they had the greatest room for growth in the market.

He said, “They are the ones likely to give their customers a better deal. That is why they should be protected. It is the small companies that are more likely to employ mainly local employees. They won’t go abroad to bring any expatriates; they use local players. They are home-grown companies and are likely to grow from Nigeria and move into other countries.

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“Small companies keep the big companies on their toes. They are smaller; they tackle the niche market. They are the ones likely to go to rural areas. Now, there is a situation where big companies bully these companies through inter-connection, forgetting that when they were small, the NCC had to hold the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited down and insist that they interconnect with them.”

According to Oke, all over the world, when the private sector is allowed to come into telecommunications, this issue of interconnection persists.

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He said, “The incumbent operator is always reluctant to interconnect; it always takes the regulator to ensure that they interconnect.

“So, the same thing happened when MTN came on the scene; NITEL didn’t want to interconnect. It took the NCC to force them, and the fact that the government stood behind the NCC. It was why people could buy MTN phones; otherwise, if they didn’t allow them to interconnect, everyone would have stayed on NITEL.

“A lot of big operators today are now playing games around interconnection and trying to kill small companies,” he stated.

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