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Telecoms: Between waves and anxieties

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The telecommunication sector played key roles to keep the government and businesses running amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the year ended with anxieties over the unsettling decision of the government to link obscure National Identity Number (NIN) with Subscriber Identity Modules (SIMs), reports LUCAS AJANAKU.

The telecoms sector witnessed a significant push towards a more digitalised economy and nation in 2020. As the COVID-19 lockdown persisted, governments and companies leveraged on telecommunication sector to keep running with Federal and state executive council meetings moved to the virtual space, the first time of such events in Nigeria.

Through Zoom, Google Meet and other apps, businesses continued to run in line with the “new normal” which encouraged people to work from home to halt community spread of the deadly virus.

It is significant that all these were made possible through the investment made by Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) on the infrastructure on which the services ran.

According to official telecom industry data, the telecoms contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP), increased to over 14.30 per cent during the second quarter (Q2) 2020, according to data obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In financial value, the 14.30 per cent, translates to N2.272 trillion. It was 10.60 per cent by December last year just as the sector’s foreign direct investment (FDI) moved beyond $70 billion.

Active mobile voice subscribers increased from 184 million in December, 2019 to 208 million by October, 2020. This represents an additional 24 million active mobile lines accessed by Nigerians across mobile networks from December, 2019 to October, 2020.Accordingly, teledensity (the total number of telephone lines per hundred people in an area) increased from 96.76per cent in December, 2019 to 108.94 per cent by October, 2020.

There was increased connectivity from 126 million in December, 2019, internet subscriptions rose impressively to 152.9 million in October. In the same vein, broadband (i.e. high-speed Internet) penetration maintained an upward swing to 45.93 per cent, up from 37.80 per cent in 2019.

Chief Executive Officer, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof Garba Danbatta got a second term of another five years, a development which the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said was a reflection of government’s acknowledgement of the need to encourage the culture of continuity and recognition of hard work.

With a stable management, the Commission was able to resolve over 98per cent of the total consumer complaints received from telecoms consumers via the NCC Toll-Free Number 622, NCC Consumer Portal, social media platforms and written complaints. Subscriptions by telecoms consumers to the NCC’s Don-Not-Disturb (DND) 2442 service reached over 30 million in 2020. It was 22 million in 2019.

Earlier in the year, the regulator unveiled the New Strategic Management Plan (SMP) 2020-2024 which it hoped will provide the compass to drive the implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) and the National Broadband Plan (NBP) 2020 – 2025 of the Federal Government. The SMP, according to Danbatta, will aid the NCC in driving its telecom regulatory mandate in the fast evolving telecoms industry, in the next five years. It will also serve as a roadmap for the future of the telecoms sector, taking into consideration the current and emerging trends in the industry and the numerous expectations of the stakeholders.

In terms of revenue generation, the Commission remitted N344.71 billion to Federal Government Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) from spectrum fees and operating surplus during the year. It also embarked on spectrum auctions, re-planning, re-farming to optimsie the usage of the scarce resource while it continued to address the quality of service (QoS) delivery through effective monitoring of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and development of KPIs for 3G and 4G, to ensure improved service delivery to telecom consumers.

The Commission granted approval for two mobile network operators (MNOs), MTN Nigeria and 9mobile, to carry out trial on the workability of embedded or e-SIM service. The trial, approved to run for one year, would involve testing 5,000 e-SIMs by the two networks, subject to compliance with a number of regulatory conditions. Prof. Danbatta said the primary objective of the e-SIM trial is to assess the technical performance of the e-SIM on telecoms service providers’ network towards eventual rollout, if satisfactory. He said the e-SIMs is a technology that will eliminate the need for physical SIM card slots on mobile devices in the near future, adding that the trial is in line with the Commission’s forward-looking regulatory approach to ensure Nigeria’s telecoms ecosystem is in tandem with global best practices.

MTN and 9mobile also got approval to trial of national roaming service for a period of three months, commencing from August 1, 2020, and to end by October 31, 2020. The two telcos are expected to configure their networks to begin test and simulation for customer experience. The trial approval covers a few local governments, designated as the National Roaming geographic area, in Ondo State.

Basically, roaming service will enable a mobile subscriber to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services when travelling outside a particular network geographical area by utilising the network coverage of other networks with roaming arrangements to access service.

NCC said the primary objective of the National Roaming Service trial is to encourage network resource sharing among operators. It will also lead to operational expenditure (OPEX) optimisation and capital expenditure (CAPEX) efficiencies leading to freeing up of resources to expand mobile network coverage to unserved and underserved communities across the country, which will lead to improved Quality of Service (QoS) delivery to subscribers.

Commission constituted a committee to review the framework for the licensing of Infrastructure Companies (InfraCo) and recommend sustainable funding options for effective implementation of the proposed national fibre project. The committee was sequel to the requirements of the new NNBP 2020-2025 and reports of relevant committees set up by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which included the Inter-Ministerial Review Committee on Multiple Taxation on Telecommunications Operators over Right-of-Way (RoW) and the Technical Sub-Committee on Right-of-Way for Deepening Broadband Penetration in Nigeria. These requirements and reports relate to the imperative of reviewing the InfraCo framework to cater for the delays in take-off, change in exchange rate, supply chain and other challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The InfraCo project is dear to the government because of its ability to enhance robust and pervasive broadband infrastructure to drive service availability, accessibility and affordability,” Danbatta had said.

But as the year was coming to the end, Nigerians were jolted by a directive from the Federal Government through the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy, Dr Ibrahim Panatami, halting registration of new  subscriber identity modules (SIMs) in the first instance, and then giving a two-week deadline for subscribers to link their SIMs with the National Identity Number (NIN).

This ushered in mad rush to the offices and registration centres of the National Identity management Commission (NIMC) across the country in breach of COVID-19 protocols of social distancing and wearing of face masks. Anxious subscribers rushed out in order not to be rudely disconnected from the network. The government subsequently extended the deadline, although most stakeholders remained unconvinced about the entire process. This was the lowest point in the year that had seen phenomenal push in the nation’s quest for a functional digital ecosystem.




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