Concerned with the various challenges facing the telecom industry, operators are in serious talk with the government on finding a lasting solution. In this interview with ABOLAJI ADEBAYO, the President of the Association of Telecommunications, Information Technology Cable Satellite and Allied Services Employers of Nigeria (ATICEN), Comrade Adede John Williams, said the Federal Government needs to repeal the NCC Act and declare telecom infrastructure a national critical infrastructure
How do you rate the telecom industry in Nigeria?
The telecom industry in Nigeria has come to stay, no going back. When we’re talking about what it has contributed to the GDP of the country, it’s enormous. It’s very wonderful. What we should be begging for from the government now to do for us is to see how they can also bring in some intervention funds or support to the telecom industry. They just signed the startup bill. You talk about giving the startups some funds but they can’t access that fund. I mean the process of accessing the fund is too cumbersome.
So, what we are appealing to the government is to make it a little bit flexible. The telecom industry is capital-intensive. We also look at how the government can declare a state of emergency on the telecom sector in terms of infrastructure. The government agencies should partner with telecom companies. The rural environment is still out of network services. There’s no infrastructure there. So, what stops some of the intervention agencies from partnering with telcos and giving us the modalities for which we can come in to serve the rural areas?
A lot of the rural environments don’t have telecom services. This telecom sector is one environment that has contributed so much to the Nigerian state in terms of direct and indirect employment. So, we look forward to seeing how the government can actually have a strong meeting with stakeholders. We’re not talking about fanfare meetings. Not a meeting where you just call some people to sit down and talk and at the end of the day, you just have a team meeting. No, a critical meeting that will have a solution, not a paper solution, a solution that would touch other people in the rural environment.
There are some places you go to in this country, where they don’t have networks at all, where they don’t even know what network is all about. As I said, if the government can sit down with the real stakeholders and identify the real problems, there will be immediate solutions. We want to cover all the nooks and crannies. We want to make sure that people feel the impact of communication. So, the gov- ernment must come in.
When I say government comes in, maybe your next question would be, the government has an agency called Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF). But let me come in there. That particular fund is what the gov- ernment has earmarked to provide telecom infrastructure in the unserved rural areas but was mismanaged. I’m using this opportunity to call on His Excellency President Bola Tinubu, GCFR, to look into that fund.
A lot is going on in that fund. The purpose is to cover the unserved and underserved communities. But can we account for the funds in the past eight years? I’m also calling on the National Assembly, both the Senate and the House of Representatives – the chairman of the communication committee, the chairman of ICT and cyber- security – they should make sure there is accountability of the fund.
How many people in the industry have accessed the fund, and what impact has the fund had on the telecom industry in Nigeria?
The fund has been available but difficult to access. I can say categorically that the level of access is below 30 per cent, which is below the pass mark. It is so because that fund looks hidden. It’s being engulfed by NCC. It tends not to allow the fund to come out of its shell. We only see the fund on the pages of the papers, calling for expression of interest. Immediately that expression of interest on paper comes and goes, that ends the story.
Does that mean people do not apply for the fund?
They apply but what is given out is nothing. Then, who are those given the funds? What do they use the fund for? Why don’t we see any improvement in terms of telecoms infrastructure in the rural areas? If it is being used for the purpose, can we bring accountability into play? If the fund is serving the underserved, people need to know and see it. Many industry players are not even aware of the fund since there is no awareness, no information about the fund. You must also understand that this fund has been managed by the top hierarchy in the NCC and the minister.
The minister is the chairman while the NCC EVC is the vice chairman of the fund committee. We’re not attacking anybody, we’re not saying they’re not doing anything but we need more. In fact, Pantami and Dambatta did well in their capacity but there must be account- ability. Let the appropriation of that fund be transparent. If other countries are using the same fund well, Nigeria should also do well. I’m also using this opportunity to call on the new EVC, Dr. Aminu Maida, because he has a lot of jobs to do. This fund is actually under his watch.
If the fund does not work, we will call him to account. If it works, we shall praise him. Apart from the fund, are there other things the NCC as a regulatory body is not doing properly? Are there gaps the new EVC needs to bridge identified by the industry players? So far, so good. I also want to use this opportunity to appreciate the immediate past EVC, Prof. Umar Dambatta. He has done well in his own capacity. As I said, policy keeps evolving, some of which are not favourable to the operating environment, and that is why we’re calling for the repeal of the NCC Act.
We’re not calling for the repeal because it’s not doing its statutory function, no, but there are things that need to have been added, so that we can make it more explicit, more transparent, and add more penalties. If something is wrong is wrong, how do we punish the person? Yes, it’s a regulatory agency that covers the telco environment, the ecosystem of the telecoms, and all that. Though for now, the telecom industry has been thriving well, the policy is eco-friendly, but we look forward to seeing more eco-friendly policies, especially taxation which has been the biggest problem in our industry.
A repealed Act will make telecom infrastructure a national critical infrastructure, so that damaging the infrastructure will be a criminal case and punishable under the law. If the Act is repealed and worked on, there would be a criminal penalty for people who vandalise the telecom Infrastructure because it is one major challenge that actually truncates the mode of operations of the telecoms as telcos lose so much in infrastructure maintenance. A typical example is the fibre optic cables that are laid all over the country.
You will lay a fibre optic cable today, tomorrow, you come back, and you see a consortium firm destroying without any recourse to whether you’re using money to do this or not. Nobody is coming to your aid. Then, we talk about the Right of Way. If the telecom infrastructure is a national critical infrastructure, you will find out that Right of Way wouldn’t be a problem because it would have been in the law.
So, definitely, if there is a law, there will be no different rates for Right of Way in different states?
No, there will be unification in the payment for the Right of Way. And even the payment will be easy. Once it becomes a national infrastructure, you don’t need to talk about being paid or not being paid. All that the telco company needs to do is to pass through the agency that is in charge. You write the agency and get your cables laid. Except the Right of Way affects someone’s building, which is very difficult. If it affects someone’s building, that is a different thing but if it does not, what you just need is to get approval from the agency in charge.
You talked about the policy being friendly but a lot of the operators complain about some of the policies in the telecom ecosystem and leaving the country and or going out of the business due to such policies. What can you say about this? I realise it is really appalling. You’re not far from the truth. The telecom industry is actually deteriorating. The policy is part of it. The FX is also part of it. Very important. The policy from the business environment, multiple taxation, and all that. That is why we are calling on the government, most especially on our challenges.
This government is a very wonderful, friendly government. This present administration is one that we believe has a listening ear and is going to listen to the telecom companies through their associations. The fact that the telco is not coming out to cry individually does not mean that things are not affecting them. A lot of things are affecting them. A lot of companies have left the shores of this country for other countries because of the issue of power. Power is one of the biggest challenges we have in this country. Policy and policies are also one of the challenges. A government agency would say let’s do this, another one would say no.
Other States will go against the Federal Government’s policies, claiming to be the owners of their states. But we should also understand that telecom is not under his state operation. It is on the concurrent list. So, if it is on the concurrent list, the states should also deal with telecom in that perspective. That is why we are reiterating that there is a need for the government to call a critical tech meeting. I repeat, not a fun fair meeting. And I’m calling on this EVC to please call all-inclusive stakeholders, not selective ones.
This year should be open to everybody in the industry, so that they can tell him the real challenges and best the solutions, not the sycophants. We’re not meeting for fights but we’re talking about the meeting that you can discuss where we understand the real things and follow-up implementation from the presidency. The presidency is willing. President Bola Tinubu is willing to listen to us.
Is there collaboration among the players? Do they speak in one voice to achieve goals?
Let me put it this way. Everybody tends to be talking and pushing one course. But, how we proceed is another thing. You might be telling the government but it is not about telling the government this is what you want, and you go back to sleep. ALTON has been doing a wonderful job. But ATICEN is like a trade union that just came in, and we’re also working seriously. When everybody or the associations come together to achieve a particular goal, there and then, you now say yes, we’re achieving something. So, what we are saying is that everybody should come together.
You have not achieved some of your goals such as USSD debt despite the various discussions and interventions, the industry has not been paid and so many other issues. Why?
I will beg to differ with you a little bit. So far, so good. We’ve been talking and the government has also been listening. But you know, it is a gradual process. Since it has to do with money, it is difficult to settle just like that. We have also been talking about the Right of Way. That is why we are appealing for the repeal of the NCC Act. When it makes it a law, it becomes easier to manage. But at this stage is for us to talk. We advocate. We discuss. We’ll reason together with the people. Not war. During the previous administration, there was a deal that came up about the communication tax bill. We rejected it and the government agreed with us.