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More controversies as USSD debt rises to N45b

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•Telcos insist banks pay outstanding
The fragile settlement reached between the telecommunications operators and Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) last week over the lingering crisis surrounding the usage of the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data(USSD) may hit the rock anytime soon.

This is because, while the banks have come out to claim not owing to the telcos, the mobile network operators (MNOs) are insisting that the DMBs owe them. They disclosed that since the time the crises came to the public, the debt has risen from N42 billion to N45 billion.

As such, they insisted that all the debts must be paid adequately. The USSD crisis had led to a threat by the telcos, which planned to disconnect the banks from further having access to the service.

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But the intervention of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Governor, Godwin Emefiele, who both asked the telcos not to disconnect the banks with the hope that the matter will be resolved amicably via further meetings.

However, a recent Bloomberg report, where the banks denied owing the telcos the said amount, has sparked fresh controversies.

The Chief Executive Officer of Access Bank Plc, Herbert Wigwe, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying: “There is no such thing as an obligation due from banks to telcos. We chose not to make a public statement out of it because it is not appropriate for us to be found fighting with telcos in public.”

Wigwe said the telecom companies are asking the banks to remit money to them even for transactions that did not take place, adding: “It is true that they continue to provide this service but this service has nothing to do with the banks.”

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Reacting to the matter in a chat with The Guardian, the Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said at a meeting with CBN and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) terms of the settlement have been discussed and will be agreed in an MoU with both regulators.

“We also don’t want to join issues with the banks but the fact remains that the banks used the USSD channels over more than a year without paying and they can’t deny that the USSD channels services were not made available to them by the telcos.

“The banks debited their customers for use of the USSD channels and they did not pay the telcos for the use of the services.

“They cannot enjoy a service and would not pay. Because no service is free. Not even the banking services offered to telcos.”

Adebayo said the over N45 billion debt remains outstanding and the banks have to pay the telcos. He said it has become a moral obligation because the banks used the services, debited their customer accounts and now are not paying the telcos.

“Who do they expect to pay and what were the deductions made from their customers for USSD services (which you and I were debited for) ? What is the deduction meant for? It’s a debt and the banks have to pay the operators. It’s a moral obligation. It was N42 billion in January, and the number kept rising, but by the time parties met it had risen to N45 billion,” he stated.

The ALTON boss said telcos hoped that the regulators (CBN and NCC) having intervened by preventing operators to disconnect the USSD services will resolve the lingering debt issues.

According to him, the banks owed the operators “and they will pay. Otherwise, let us ask them where the money is deducted for USSD services from their customers. You and I know we were charged for USSD transactions, what is the deduction meant for?”

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Commenting on the development, a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, said the banks have tried to remove the cost of using USSD, but are willing to cut off subscribers to protect their fees earned through the channel.

Recall that the CBN and the NCC had in a communique issued at the end of a meeting to resolve the disagreement on USSD fee between the banks and telcos agreed that with effect from March 16, 2021, USSD services for financial transactions conducted at banks and all CBN- licensed institutions would be a flat rate of N6.98k per transaction.

This is supposed to replace the previous per session billing structure, ensuring a much cheaper average cost for customers to ensure financial inclusion.

“To promote transparency, the new USSD charges will be collected on behalf of MNOs directly from customers’ bank accounts. “Banks shall not impose additional charges on customers for the use of USSD channels. “A settlement plan for outstanding payments incurred for USSD services previously rendered by the MNOs is being worked out by all parties in a bid to ensure that the matter is fully resolved,” the communiqué explained.

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