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Telecoms subscribers deserve better services, says Danbatta

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[FILES] Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta. Photo; TWITTER/NGCOMMUNICATIONCOMM


Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta is Executive Vice Chairman/Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). Last Sunday in Lagos, he was honoured with the prestigious Zik Prize in Professional Leadership category for 2019. He later addressed reporters on the relevance of the honour to the telecoms industry. Danbatta, a fellow of many professional bodies, insists that telecoms subscribers must get value for their money. ADEYEMI ADEPETUN reports

How does the ZIK Prize award speak to your leadership of the telecommunications sector?
As you are aware, I was honoured with the ZIK Prize award in the professional leadership category. We were two that got the award. The other person is a banker. The reason I was considered for the award, according to the organisers, was that we at the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) have succeeded in raising the bar in the telecommunications industry. They said we have been able to raise broadband penetration from about six per cent in 2015 to 45.93 per cent as at October 2020.

They talked about how we have empowered the telecoms consumers. They noted our efforts on protection of consumers against unsolicited short message service (SMS), providing the over 207 million subscribers with a toll-free complaint line.

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We have an excellent consumer resolution mechanism in place. The response time is shorter. For instance the 6224 line resolves issues within 24 hours.
 
The laurel is dedicated to the telecommunications sector, subscribers, management and board of the NCC and the media for their immense roles in the last six years. They have all played huge roles in these last six years.

I also acknowledge the confidence reposed in me by President Muhammadu Buhari, who appointed me in 2015, and re-appointed me in 2020 after a strong recommendation by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami.

So, recognition of this nature comes with a lot of expectations. It calls for more responsibility, dedication and commitment to service. From about 100 million subscribers in 2015 to over 200 million now, it shows that on daily basis, Nigerians are subscribing to telecoms services.

How will this translate to improved services for consumers?
I think there are expectations from telecoms subscribers. They want to get value for money spent. They want the NCC to address issue of data depletion. We have seen data prices crashing reasonably.

We did a benchmark, and found out that the cost of one gigabyte of data had come down to about N500, which is more than 50 per cent reduction from what obtained at the start of 2020. Remember, we have a target of N390 to one gigabyte by the year 2025, and we are almost there. The N390 is what is in the New National Broadband Plan (NNBP) 2020- 2025. We need to do a cost-based study because it is much more scientific.

This is a good sign, and I am sure many subscribers will appreciate it. However, this reduction has not addressed the issue of depletion. So, we need to put up another measure in place to address this issue. The NCC is going to take a strong regulatory action to ensure that subscribers are not shortchanged. We have instituted forensic audit of data, in the same way, we conducted audit on the cost of SMS.

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We conducted an audit on Airtel, which showed that subscribers were mistakenly surcharged to the tune of N100 million. We wrote to Airtel and they are making refunds. The NCC is extending this to other mobile network operators (MNOs).

We believe that by the time this audit is completed, a comprehensive view of what is happening in the data sub-sector would be laid bare. I am looking up to a time I will be able to address Nigerians that data prices and depletion have been resolved.
  
Another issue the award expected us to address going forward is infrastructure deficit. We still have clusters of access gaps in unserved and underserved areas of the country. People in rural communities are simply not enjoying the services that are obtainable in the urban areas. I have often said that connectivity is key to our development. So, we need to act quickly, consistent with the policy of the government that targets about 120,000 kilometres of fibre deployment in the next four years.

So far, we have 54,000km of fibre deployed.
So, the sooner we get this done, the better telecommunications services become in the country. It has to be pervasive and accessible to all Nigerians, irrespective of location.

A lot of actions must be taken around deployment of infrastructure, especially broadband. This will enable us solve problems of congestion, and ensure right speed is attained.

Speed is very important. That is the reason the NNBP 2020-2025 provided 25mbps in urban areas and 10mbps in rural areas by 2025.You will also recall that the broadband penetration is expected to move from 45.93 per cent to 70 per cent by 2025.

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We believe that if we can deploy the necessary infrastructure, we should be able to go beyond 60 per cent at the end of 2023. I think these targets are in sync with the expectations of Nigerians.

What amount of Base Transceiver Station (BTSs) is required to drive these expectations?
Well, we know the number of telecoms masts that we have. We had an access cluster gap of 217 where some 40 million Nigerians reside without access to telecoms services due to infrastructure deficit. However, that number has gone down by more than 50 per cent. So, we have about 114 access gap to be addressed, affecting about 30 million. The number has gone down by 10 million over a period of five and half years, but we could have done better by ensuring that we reduced it more, say to about 20 million.
 
The access clusters gaps are concentrated in some specific areas. The masts are a little under 50,000, which cut across 2G, 3G, and 4G because of co-location. So, the unique number of masts in the country is currently about 50,000. But if you compare this with a country like United Kingdom with a population of a third of Nigeria, that has over 60,000 masts. So, if we go by that analogy, Nigeria will need about 150,000 BTS for enhanced services.

But mind you, these are what we call wireless infrastructure. The infrastructure in this country is predominantly wireless, more than 80 per cent of them. But there is a limitation to wireless infrastructure which includes lack of speed and volume. But we need to bridge these identified challenges by laying fibre infrastructure to evenly connect BTSs. By doing so, we would boost speed and telecoms services traffic. So, we need the two – the mast on one hand, and the fixed infrastructure (fibre) on the other.

But because fibre is inadequate, there is no way we can move the huge capacity of data in Lagos which is close to 40 terabytes to the hinterland. Part of move we need to make to bring down the cost of data is to move these capacities at the landing point into every part of the country. Ultimately, we see that help bring cost of data down.

How much investment is needed to improve telephony services in the country?
When the Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) were licensed, they came up with a capital expenditure (Capex) of about N200 billion. All analyses have been done. If you add the last licensee for the North Central zone it will give you about N260 billion. However, I must say this: those were projections made before the COVID-19 pandemic and the depreciation of naira. That is why I cannot say specifically how much will be needed.

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When we calculated the counterpart funding, we came up with about N65 billion. So, all in all, we are looking at about N300 billion over a period of four years. But that has changed because of the pandemic. COVID-19 has necessitated a review of the projections, though they are still good. We have embarked on the review of the InfraCo project, which however, has been completed. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt the Federal Government on what is on the review, we leave it to them.
 
It is stated in the NNBP that between $4 billion and $5 billion will be needed.
  
In terms of sectoral investments, we know that when the operators want to import equipment, they usually make request to the Central Bank for foreign exchange (forex). It is when we clear such request that we know the reasonability of it, and normally the request comes in dollars. So, we have a record that we can put together and come up with the foreign exchange request that telcos make to the CBN for them to buy equipment.
Also, it must be stated that telcos must also have other means through which they source for funds without necessarily having to wait for the apex bank. Definitely, the $70 billion must have changed. We shall go back to get the exact figure and communicate.

When will the review of the 5G process be over?      
It is our responsibility to advise government whenever a new technology emerges. We are trained to do that. That has been the tradition since the emergence of 2G, 3G and 4G. All these were preceded by trials. Maybe these first sets of technologies did not generate so much controversies like 5G. All the troubles surrounding the new technology have been addressed by NCC. We have given assurances to Nigerians that the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNRP) has given the clearance for 5G deployment because the level of radiation is negligible. It is so small compared to the radiation coming from television set.
  
Second, on the date for commercial launch in Nigeria, I will say that would follow after taking all the precautionary measures that we need to take, including trials, which we have done in six locations across the country because of the terrains.
 

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We have conducted trials. The report has gone to the Federal Government. I can assure you that very soon, the Federal Government would make a pronouncement as to when 5G should fully deployed in Nigeria.

The Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) show that operators are meeting quality of service (QoS) standards. But reality proves otherwise. How do we juxtapose that sir, especially as Yuletide beckons?
The KPIs that characterise QoS are four, but they have since gone up to seven. It is a dynamic process because of the dynamic nature of the telecoms sector. We are doing this to ensure services are improved upon. But the one most people are familiar with are drop calls. They have forgotten about the six others.

We have capacity to measure all the KPIs everywhere in the country, and we normally give an average. So, the quality of service in terms of drop calls varies from one location to another. Obviously, where you have clusters of access gaps, there will be more drop calls because as you are moving from one area where there is access to an area where there is access gap, the call will drop.

Ideally, you are not supposed to experience any drop call wherever you move, but you can have a situation where you experience drop calls when there are clusters of access gaps that are from an area that is tied to an unserved one. So, when we notice an improvement averagely on the KPIs across all mobile network operators (MNOs), the quality of experience is different.
  
There was a day someone was telling me that they were having a virtual meeting, and they experienced several service disruptions, but I told him that on same day, I was also on a virtual hearing on local content at the National Assembly, and there was no second that service was disrupted. So, his own quality of experience (QoE) was different from mine. The idea is for us to find a way to ensure that the QoS is commensurate with QoE everywhere. But this correspondence will be very difficult to attain as long as we have infrastructure deficit and clusters of access gaps.

Part of the challenge is to ensure that we do more to improve not only on QoS but also QoE of citizens. A drop call is something you can experience, even in technologically advanced countries, but it is not strictly a technical issue. At times, there are factors that are not technical that can make calls to drop. For instance weather conditions, rain for example, can affect services momentarily when there is heavy storm. The most important thing is how quickly we can restore services, especially when it drops.

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Another parameter is your ability to set up a call, which we call Set Up Success. It says only one denial out of 100 is allowed to fail. So, you can see how stringent it is, but we are doing everything possible to ensure subscribers get the best for their money.    

What are the roles of communication satellites to enhanced broadband services?
There are terrains in this country where we do not have fixed infrastructure. So, there is reliance on satellite for reach. This is not peculiar to Nigeria. Communication satellites infrastructure is still very relevant, and we are considering for providers to augment mobile and fixed infrastructure. The satellite operators contributed positively to the competition in the industry, as their services are cheaper. We are not launching satellite into space, as it is our of our mandate. Our focus is communication satellite and usage in the country in consistence with the National Communications Act 2003.          

What are the achievements of 2020 and projections for 2021?
The Strategic Vision Plan (SVP) is an action plan peculiar to the NCC. It was designed to span a period of over five years (2015-2020). We are working on the next plan, Strategic Vision Plan II, which has some of the items from the first plan. The first step we are taking is to unveil another plan that will guide us going forward for the next five years (2021- 2025). One of the things we were able to accomplish was broadband penetration, where we surpassed 30 per cent penetration.

There are so many things to be done in the sector. If there is no plan, we may not be able to do those things we planned for the sector. 2021 will see the unveiling of the SVP II. We shall invite critical stakeholders for their contributions. So, lot of activities will be implemented in the new year to transform the digital economy agenda of the Federal Government. NCC, in 2021, will be very important to the country’s digital agenda.
 
Was NCC petitioned by PIN over blockage of ENDSARS protesters’ website?
This is a security matter as you are aware. I have not seen any communication seeking clarification from NCC. So, I won’t be able to speak on that. The National Security Adviser is in a better position to respond to that.

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