The crisis of the telecoms sector

A revolution took place in Nigeria in 2001 when the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) was introduced and commercialised. Hitherto, communication through telephone had been the preserve of the rich and middle class elites, who deployed it arrogantly as status symbol. Those were the difficult days of NITEL, that fearful entity that accurately defines everything bureaucracy, where the only words they understood were “disconnection”, “reconciliation” and “reconnection”.

The telephone services available then was mostly analogue and you have to keep dialing and dialing repeatedly to get through. If you were unlucky to experience any fault on your line at all, you have to arrange for a ladder, to enable the staff of NITEL to trace the cables in order to identify and rectify it. And this could take weeks or months to accomplish. To make international calls, you have to be part of the regular vigils at Marina and queue up to use one of the small cubicles, to speak to the people of the other land.

Eventually, the mobile phone came in, through the 090 (or “not 9 not”) analogue system of mobile communications. It was the ultimate status symbol for the Nigerian man. The billing system of this era was totally erratic and you just wouldn’t get anywhere with NITEL on this, but to eventually comply and pay, in most cases, based on estimates.

So you could imagine the joy of most Nigerians in 2001 when Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, then president, announced the birth of GSM in Nigeria. It was like a dream, for so many. According to the Nigerian Communications Commission Act of 2003, the main objective was to “promote the provision of modern, efficient, reliable, affordable and easily accessible communications services and the widest range thereof throughout Nigeria.” Very sound on paper, you would readily agree. But check out those words: MODERN, EFFICIENT, RELIABLE, AFFORDABLE, ACCESSIBLE. By now, you must be shaking your head in utter disbelief.

That indeed is the goal of every global system of mobile communications, to meet the changing dynamics of technology and the changing lifestyles of human beings. It is designed to be efficient, given the purpose for which it was conceived. It should be reliable, especially in moments of great need and emergencies and at the same time affordable, being a system involving the people. The concept of accessibility for telecommunications is so that trade and commerce will blossom thereby, especially in the hinterlands, where the CDMAs should     have been deployed with equal facilities as GSM, in order to arrest the mass exodus to the cities.

At the time the GSM was launched in 2001, the sim pack was sold for N20,000, with no value added services at all. To enjoy call waiting facility, you had to pay for it and we never knew then that it was possible to combine data with voice calls through the GSM. The experience of the average user of GSM then and even now has been that of total frustration, exploitation and extortion. Yes, it is convenient and better than the NITEL regime no doubt, but when compared with the experience in other jurisdictions where GSM is deployed efficiently and effectively, we certainly have a very long way to go.

On record, the NCC Act contains very detailed provisions meant to protect consumers through regulation, monitoring and enforcement, by the Nigerian Communications Commission, but it would seem that the will to act has been lacking, in most cases, resulting into inefficient services by the operators. For instance, under and by virtue of Section 4(1)(b) of the Act, the NCC is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring the “protection and promotion of the interests of consumers against unfair practices, including but not limited to matters relating to tariffs and charges for the availability and quality of communications services, equipment and facilities.” No one has any doubt whatsoever that NCC is not doing anything near the protection and promotion of the interests of the consumers, as the telecommunications companies (Telcos) have virtually become lords unto themselves, profiteering through arbitrary charges, drop calls and unsolicited messages and hidden charges.

Surely, there are multiple challenges being faced by the Telcos, from poor infrastructure, especially lack of electricity, to vandalisation of valuable equipment, security of staff, multiple taxes and the high cost of maintenance of facilities, all of which are not peculiar to Nigeria. This is the reason given for the unusual high tariff for voice calls and data usages by which the service providers were expected to mitigate their supposed “losses” and, in return, render efficient services. Consumers have continued to be on the losing side of the telecoms business. Let us look at it in some details.

Presently, virtually all the Telcos have adopted a secret method of fleecing their subscribers through a prohibitive data regime. With the recent increase in Facebook subscriptions, the proliferation of WhatsApp platforms and other social media devices like Twitter, Instagram, etc, the Telcos have suddenly turned data subscription into their goldmines.

This experience cuts across all the telecom companies. No matter the volume of data you subscribe to, it will be exhausted within days and you’re forced to renew same and to keep renewing and renewing. In some cases, the options for data subscription includes the regime of “unlimited” data usage, by which a premium tariff is imposed upon the subscriber in order to enhance seamless browsing. Something is “unlimited” when it is without controls, boundless, unrestricted and undefined. But what we have in real time usage is that the so-called ‘unlimited’ data can be exhausted in just one minute. The Telcos then developed the smart theory of adding the nature of usage, by asking if you ever used your device for video and those other hidden terminologies that they have concocted to always outsmart consumers. If you advertised a contract of unlimited data for 30 days and I subscribe to it and pay so heavily, how can you then turn around to claim that “unlimited 30 days” can become “limited 1 minute”? It is simply a breach of contract, as there is no indication in any of those fraudulent monthly plans being advertised by the Telcos where other conditions were specified beyond mere subscription and payment.

Now the substance of the Telecommunications Act is that telecom services should be efficient, accessible and affordable. In most cases, the data network is so poor that it takes ages to download simple links. How can you claim to operate a 4G LTE data regime and links cannot open in several minutes? This is totally unacceptable. It will be recalled that when the GSM regime started in Nigeria, these same Telcos were grandstanding and extorting subscribers, claiming that per second billing was not possible, until the famous boycott of 2003, which birthed the liberalisation that is being capitalised upon today by the Telcos.

It is the responsibility of NCC to come to the rescue of all telecom subscribers, by ensuring a transparent, efficient and affordable data regime. There should be a simple, transparent method of verifying data usage, not this present regime of unilateral and arbitrary assessment by the Telcos, that puts all subscribers at their mercy. The Telcos, having realised the current heat in the political space, are now desperately deploying an arbitrary data regime that takes them to the bank smiling.

The use of telephone and data services cannot be said to be matters of private contract between subscribers and the Telcos anymore. Since telephone usage is attached to the freedom of speech and general communications, any subtle denial or restriction thereof, through a regime of profiteering by the Telcos, will be illegal and immoral. Now if you have observed closely, our greeting and communication patterns have been altered forcefully, such that one cannot even have enough grace to seek after the welfare of others during telephone conversations, all in the bid to avoid excess charges.

What about the hidden charges? Unknown to many consumers, the Telcos have automatic billing systems, by which they craftily subscribe users to multiple bogus services that have no utility value for the consumer and yet they are daily being charged for same. The NCC has to wake up and face the job of monitoring and enforcement squarely. Telephone usage should not become a burden for whatever reason. Great investments have been made by the Telcos no doubt, for which they expect very good returns, but as we now know that most of these equipment and facilities are being shared by the Telcos and are durable, reasonable concessions must be granted to subscribers to achieve some equilibrium in the telecoms business chain. It shouldn’t be that the consumers are always on the losing side, all the time. Otherwise …