After $75b investments in 20 years, telecoms service still struggling

• Subscribers decry increase in drop calls, slow data operations
• Lack of FX, insecurity cut operators expansion, upgrade plans
• Govt failed operators on power generation, says ALTON
• NCC plans sanctions as country’s access gaps drop

Twenty years after the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) licensed the first two Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) that birthed the revolution of Global System for Mobile (GSM) telecommunication technology in the country, the sector is still grappling with challenges two decades on.

While it has today grown to become an essential tool for economic, political, and social interactions among different strata of the society, bridging the communication gap between urban and rural dwellers, telecommunications services, especially voice and data offerings, among others, have gone poorer in the last three months across Nigeria.
Investigations by The Guardian showed that from Lagos to Abuja, Ondo to Port Harcourt, Jos to Enugu, Borno to Sokoto, the quality of service, especially from the GSM operators, notably MTN Nigeria, Globacom, Airtel, and 9mobile has been very poor in the last 100 days.
These poor services have been characterised by increased dropped calls, aborted short message service (SMS), truncated calls, the menace of unsolicited SMS, depletion of credits, improper billing systems, slow data services, and a host of others.

Expectedly, poor telecom services have been one of the fallouts of the Boko Haram insurgency that has ravaged the Northeast states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. As non-state armed groups (NSAG) continue their terror campaign, launching audacious attacks on military formations, targeting humanitarian infrastructure and personnel, killing civilians, and causing widespread damage to property and critical national infrastructure such as the national power grid and telecom installations, residents in affected areas have had to endure a long spell of erratic services.
As of the first quarter of 2021, subscribers lodged a total of 3,019 complaints against Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). The figure was 435 higher than the number of complaints that were lodged in Q1, 2020.
The Q1, 2021 report on complaint management issued by the Consumer Affairs Bureau of the NCC revealed that a total of 3,019 consumer complaints were received from four channels established by the Commission as compared to 2,854 complaints received in the first quarter of 2020. NCC, though said it was able to resolve 99.2 per cent of the service-related complaints, got through the Commission’s contact centre, toll-free number 622, social media platforms, and written documents.

According to the telecoms regulator, the breakdown by service providers showed that 1,261 (51.8 per cent) of the total complaints were lodged by MTN customers; 973, representing 32.2 per cent, came from Airtel subscribers; 549 (18.2 per cent) were from Globacom subscribers; 179 (5.9 per cent) from 9Mobile customers, while the remaining 52 complaints came from customers of other licensees.

The report also showed that issues relating to billings, quality of service/experiences for voice as for data were the three topmost complaints from telecoms consumers.
While the Q2 report is yet to be released, poor telephony services have persisted and grown worse, going by situation reports across the country. This is despite the over $75 billion investments that have gone into the sector.

Indeed, telecommunications have become the backbone that other infrastructures rely on, and it has enabled the growth of the economy, contributing over 17 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, it has been plagued by continuous poor services.   

For instance, Enugu subscribers complained of network freezing while calls are on. They stressed that drop calls and faster depletion of data have become the order of the day and now taking a heavy toll on their ability to communicate effectively.

The Guardian gathered that the poor network syndrome spiked since the rains intensified in the last couple of weeks, making it difficult also to access bonus offers, especially for MTN and Globacom subscribers.

Some subscribers lamented that it was more painful that deductions are made in their accounts even when the network providers failed to deliver messages sent as SMS, adding that in most cases, they had to be debited severally for messages.

Chikodili Ugwu told The Guardian that one thing she had experienced for some time now was the rampant depletion in credit on her Airtel line, insisting that the trend had continued, “even when I have not borrowed from the network.”

She stated that she had complained to the service providers and was assured that the matter would be addressed, explaining, however, that “I have not heard from them and I have not loaded credit since last week.”

Another subscriber, Chinwuba Agu, said that data services by MTN had become a serious issue due to its depletion and slow delivery. “You spend more time trying to deliver work due to the poor and slow network. It is more painful when your data depletes, not taking into consideration the time wasted due to slow network.”

Ikechukwu Mbakwe, a printer, stated that to reduce his consumption of data, “I have now put serious restrictions on when I browse the Internet. It is now twice daily to enable me to save data and money. Ordinarily, these things are supposed to be made affordable since it helps in communication but the way it is, I am afraid that very soon, some Nigerian may not be able to communicate with their phone.”

Mbakwe called on the NCC to find ways of making the network providers “compensate their customers for the stress so far encountered by the current poor network”, adding that, “customers have not only lost money, it has become difficult to do other services online.”

In Rivers State, subscribers wonder if there’s no regulation on the services or government deliberately allows citizens to suffer because of the taxes they get from service providers. These complaints were borne from experiences of poor services and exorbitant charges by network providers.

Checks in Rivers show that N3,500 monthly subscribed data does not last for up to two weeks. A clergy and Port Harcourt-based journalist, Robinson Derateide, said: “It is really terrible. How can one recharge a one-month data for N3,500, yet it will not last for two weeks. Data consumption is very high, NCC should regulate this.”

He suggested that the nation should revert to the days of blackberry phone subscription where the N1,000 monthly data plan usually lasts till the end of the month.

For another resident, Karina Igonikon, “it is surprising how data that is supposed to last a month is exhausted in a week. She said: “No matter the package subscribed to, be it 3G or 6G. So far it’s for a month, MTN would give you notice after four or five days. With MTN, there are four days in a month and it’s not as if you downloaded heavy PDF files or law books and journals.”

She also pointed out that the claim that charges are reduced at night is sometimes not true. “It is either they are not telling us the truth on this data matter because something is definitely wrong. How can one be spending N3,500 weekly. In one month, that would amount to N14,000, just for data, not factoring calls subscription.”

In Ibadan, it has been divergent reactions over service quality. While some said the quality is good, others disagreed. A public affairs commentator, Joshua Ogundare, said there has not been an issue, but “data is costly. The way they are charging for data since the beginning of June has been very disappointing.”

There are also sad tales regarding telephony offerings in Lagos and Abuja, which are the commercial nerve centre and capital of the country respectively. Most of the complaints have been that of faster depletion of data.

Reacting to the development, the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, wants Nigeria to appreciate the development the sector has brought to the economy thus far. Adebayo said quality of services may remain poor for some time due to some challenges. He pointed out that issues of power, vandalism, multiple taxation/regulation, among others continue to impact the sector. He added that as long as the networks exist and there is absence of fully built public infrastructure, services will continue to struggle.

“On the issue of energy/power, I remember that at the beginning of the revolution, part of the licensing agreement was that operators must roll out about 10,000 lines in the first year, which we surpassed significantly. The Federal Government on the other hand was to ensure adequate power supply from the grid in the first five years, there was a document signed on this. Now, it is 20 years, the power has not been stable. Operators still generate their power themselves. So, services will continue to be disrupted as far as those challenges persist.”

Adebayo, who said the sector’s investment must have quadruple from the $70 billion estimation about five years back, stressed that the spate of insecurity in the country is another factor affecting services because telcos are having difficulties accessing faulty sites. “Members have lost staff too to insecurity,” he stated.

Recall that some weeks back, in an internal memo, MTN had warned that its service in Nigeria could be disrupted as a result of rising insecurity in different parts of the country.

“Sadly, we must inform you that with rising insecurity in different parts of Nigeria, service delivery may be impacted in the coming days. This means that in some cases, our technical support team may not be able to get to your site and achieve optimum turnaround time in fault management as quickly as possible,” MTN wrote in a message to customers.

On his part, the Nigeria Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), Olusola Teniola, blamed the congestion in network and Internet to the impact of COVID-19.

According to him, increased usage of data and more data traffic have led to more congestion as more people opt for virtual work mode.

He also added that until the country has the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) effectively enforced, the closure, destruction and damage to optic fiber, base stations, among others, will have a negative impact on Quality of Service (QoS).

The Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of VDT Communications, Biodun Omoniyi, said the industry was import dependent; thus, the need for special forex intervention.

Omoniyi said: “There is no accessibility to forex, which affects the quality of service as operators cannot quickly replace damaged equipment. When we talk about communication, we are also referring to the equipment involved. We don’t manufacture them in Nigeria. We import almost everything in the telecom space. We are import dependent and need forex for almost everything in the space, including computers. We can’t expand our networks without buying more equipment, which means forex. Operators are not getting easy access to forex, I don’t think anyone is getting easy access to forex. I think it is affecting other industries as well.”

Omoniyi also lamented that the fall of the naira had increased the cost of equipment and service delivery. He said “telcos provide service in naira. The naira has been falling; so, it is more expensive to buy equipment. Since COVID-19 started, the naira has lost about 35 per cent of its value. Before, we used to buy the dollar for N350 or N360; today it is N500. That is N150 more. The naira you have gathered today or one year ago and feel would be able to buy you three equipment can just buy you two at most now.”

Reacting to the development, the Executive Vice Chairman, NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, who decried the development, said the Commission is doing everything to ensure subscribers get the benefit for their money.

Danbatta, who didn’t rule out the option of sanction on operators that failed to meet the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) on service quality, said: “We have KPIs characterising Quality of Service, which is about seven of them. We try as much as possible to ensure that the stipulations of the NCC are respected with regard to set parameters.

“We said that out of 100 calls, only one is allowed to be dropped. That is the irreducible minimum for drop calls. There are other parameters like the call success rate, which we said only two calls out of 100 attempts should/may not be successful. When the KPIs were introduced, they were given to the Mobile Number Operators (MNOs) at the point of assignment of licenses. They were told in clear terms that we intend to enforce these KPIs.

“We have a way to monitor them and ensure they adhere to the guidelines; meaning that we have the capacity to measure the KPIs, including others that I did not state now. But primarily, the two KPIs I have spoken about are what we can be able to monitor throughout the country.

“So, in the event, we discover any MNO not meeting these important stipulated KPIs, we draw their attention to it. If we notice failure to address the regulatory directive, then we take action by writing. At times, we resort to the last option, which is sanction.”

In data released in December last year, five states, Borno, Yobe, Zamfara, Taraba, and Sokoto, have the highest number of communities without any basic telephony services.

The country had 285 million connected telephone lines as of then, out of which 207 million were active. However, about 30 million, according to the NCC boss, who reside in some 115 communities, have not had access to basic telephony services. Borno was ranked the state with the highest access gaps of 83.41 per cent in the country. This is followed by Yobe with 81.54 per cent; Zamfara 79.23 per cent; Taraba 77.35 per cent, and Sokoto 75.52 per cent.

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