Tackling cases of data depletion as challenges mount
The Nigerian telecommunications sector has experienced substantial growth close to two decades since the liberalisation of the industry started.
With over 200 million active mobile lines by the end of 2020, Nigeria has become the largest telecommunications sector in Africa in terms of subscriber numbers and one of the fastest-growing telecommunications markets in the world.
A corollary to this remarkable growth has been persistent consumer dissatisfaction with the quality of telecommunications services offered by the four existing GSM mobile telecommunications operators, which have been sanctioned many times over infractions.
This quality of service problem has been attributed to inefficiencies in the operational activities of the operators, who, in turn, blame peculiar features of the Nigerian environment in which they operate.
Indeed, the telecoms sector is still faced with a myriad of challenges including fibre cuts, theft, vandalism, site access denial, Right of Way, multiple taxation and regulation, among others. These challenges have, to a large extent, hindered smooth operations, which have been passed on to the paying consumers.
Today, billing issues, sales promotion, unsolicited messages and advertisements, unexplained change in the account balance; the inability of subscribers to change tariff plans; call divert, call barring, persistent data depletion, and poor signal/no network are what subscribers grapple with almost on a daily basis. But data depletion has remained huge and painful to subscribers.
Complaints by subscribers
Findings by The Guardian showed that complaints cut across all the mobile network operators, including MTN, Glo, Airtel, and 9mobile Also, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), including Spectranet, Smile, Tizeti are not left out. There were also complaints of unauthorized auto-renewal, call drops and illegal deductions.
In 2019 alone, subscribers lodged directly 19, 777 complaints against service providers to the NCC complaints portal, which bothered largely on poor services. The Commission was able to resolve a larger percentage of the issue.
An MTN subscriber, Segun Olugbile, who spoke with The Guardian, complained of airtime depletion without making calls or receiving notifications from the service provider as to what the deductions were meant for.
Olugbile explained: “I recharge N2000 for 4.5G for 30 days, I discovered that within a week, it had depleted to 2G. Hardly do I Facebook or Tweet. Something needs to be done. It is not now that we spend money anyhow, there is no disposable income again.”
On his part, a Glo customer, Ikechukwu Mbakwe, said although the network offered cheap data to customers, the quality of service has not made it possible for him to enjoy it.
“This is subtle corruption when you have to subscribe for data, your money is taken but you can’t even use the data at all. This is so pathetic,” he said.
A Smile subscriber, Judith Nelson, said though the service is great, “but what I cannot explain is the sudden depletion of data. Hardly do we get this from the firm before. But lately, it’s like they have been infected with that syndrome.”
Abuja based, Ibrahim Abdulai, said: “Services are extremely poor in Abuja, especially during the period of lockdown. From my investigation, I discovered that there are certain areas that enjoy better services in this state compared to others. For instance, areas like Garki, Asokoro, Wuse, Maitama can be said to enjoy relatively good services, but places like Maraba, Kuje, Jikwoyi, among others, the services there are very poor. We need serious intervention from the operators.”
Why data depletion persists
Experience of early depletion and rise in data consumption by telecoms consumers are not necessarily as a result of ‘illegal deductions’ or ‘sharp practices’ by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) but more as a result of varied factors.
This was the position of the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta, during a presentation at the monthly briefing on Short-Term Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) by agencies under the Federal Ministry of Communications in Abuja, last October.
Danbatta said: “The ‘illegal deduction’ of subscriber data was not in the real sense of the word illegal and was also not as a result of any proven ‘sharp practice’ by the operators.”
“The reasons for the rise in data consumption and depletion, which is classified by some users as ‘illegal deduction’, include the advancement in technology, which has led to the rise in applications, updates and services that leverage on this technology and advancement of supportive data infrastructure.”
Others, according to him, increase in video-based advertising content by social media companies which in some cases are layered on free services offered by the companies; auto-updates of apps on the phone over a mobile data network without any sort of prompting or intervention by the user of the mobile phone.
In one of his interviews with journalists, the Nigeria Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), and immediate past president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, said the most likely causes without having the exact information, have to do with the type of content users consumed.
Teniola said typically, depending on where the consumers are located, the speed of downloads of multimedia content can be varied and this means that data of Gigabytes in nature can be consumed in a matter of minutes to hours. For downloads representing very large files or long conversations involving video interactions over OTT applications that provide virtual face-to-face meetings, more so if the data compression is not adjusted to limit the amount of data representing the quality of the video streamed.
He recalled that during the stay-at-home directive, many home users have relied more on virtual online applications and have inadvertently noticed that data bundles that lasted for a period of time pre-COVID-19 are being consumed faster during lockdown – this is simply due to changes in user behaviour.
Teniola advised subscribers to seek unlimited data bundle packages if affordable, or seek OTT applications that are less heavy on data consumption.
Commission commences a forensic audit
TO actually look into the challenges, and stem the tide, the NCC said it is tightening the noose against cases of data depletion and wrong deductions of consumers’ credit through an ongoing forensic audit instituted by the Commission to ensure maximum protection for consumers.
This move is expected to ease the tension around rising complaints lodged by consumers against telecoms operators in the country.
Danbatta, at an event in Abuja, noted that while consumer protection remains a key focus area of the Commission’s regulatory activities, it has accomplished significant improvements in this direction through various initiatives aimed at putting mobile operators on their toes to be more consumer-centric.
Danbatta said through the ongoing forensic audit, the Commission planned “to get to the bottom of why consumers are experiencing data depletion and the possibility of compensating them for wrong deductions, which may arise from short message service (SMS).”
“We have instituted and we have insisted that despite the fall in data price, that forensic audit must go on and must be concluded and the outcome communicated to the CEOs of telecom companies.”
While appealing to Nigerians to wait for the outcome of the ongoing forensic audit, Danbatta said operators will be made to comply with whatever directions are given after the investigation with a view to ensuring maximum protection for telecom consumers.
He, however, noted that the Commission has developed Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on data depletion, which are designed to inform consumers on activities that may result in faster depletion of their data as well as enlighten them on measures to mitigate such. The FAQs are accessible from the Commission’s website.
Protecting the consumer
Over the years, the NCC has given a boost to consumer protection empowerment through sustained awareness creation and education on consumer rights and privileges. It was for this reason that the Commission declared the year 2016 as the ‘Year of the Consumer’ with elaborate programmes to further underscore the NCC’s commitment to consumer protection, information and education. The Commission has intensified its compliance monitoring exercises with the acquisition of efficient tools and capacities to bring sanity in the industry all in a bid to improve the quality of consumer experience.
Among several initiatives, Danbatta said the introduction of the Do-Not-Disturb (DND) has helped over 30 million consumers to block unsolicited text messages on their phones while stern regulatory actions are constantly taken by the regulator against any operator that prevents a consumer from subscribing to the DND service.
Also, the EVC said the Commission launched the 622 Toll-free Numbers, which consumers can use to lodge and escalate service-related complaints to the Commission for resolution, stating that thousands of complaints have been successfully resolved since its introduction.
Aside from growth indices, Danbatta linked some of the achievements in the telecoms sector to NCC’s 8 Point Agenda, which he said, remained the key focus and driver of telecoms infrastructure rollout and protection of the over 200 million consumers.
“In order to strategically coordinate and align resources and actions to better achieve the mandate of the commission and facilitate the emergence of a knowledge-based economy in Nigeria, we developed a strategic vision plan (SVP) 2015 – 2020, premised on eight pillars referred to as the 8-Point Agenda, which include: to facilitate broadband penetration; improve quality of service; optimize usage and benefit of the spectrum; promote ICT innovation and investment opportunities; facilitate strategic collaboration; protect and empower consumers; promote fair competition and inclusive growth; and regulatory excellence and operational efficiency,” he stated.
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