Data: Saving consumers from operators and regulators – Guardian

The five-day ultimatum issued to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to tackle illegal deductions by telecom operators and reduce the price of data is a welcome development, though belated. The Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, rightly moved to rein in the telecom operators, having received a pinch of a biting reality. There is no doubt that the operators of our general system of mobile (GSM) telecommunication have pushed their luck too far and their greed too hard not to draw the anger of a responsible regulator.

Since the dawn of the 21st Century and attendant innovations in Internet and digitalisation nurtured by digitisation, access to data has become synonymous with life globally. Every modern and information technology revolves around data. Nigeria is not an exception in the disruptive order. The most populous black nation on earth with the most vibrant youth population is fast and freely latching on to the digital world and its opportunities. By 2019, Nigeria has emerged the seventh highest Internet subscriber, ahead of Russia and Germany.

Findings have shown that there are over 110 million monthly subscribers in the country alone. Meanwhile, about 81 per cent of Internet traffic comes from mobile devices to support almost six million Twitter accounts and 5.7 million Instagram users in the country. The recent visits of Facebook and Twitter chief executive officers to Nigeria said as much about the importance of Nigeria to the global digital economy. What’s more, it is for this reality that even the name of the ministry in charge of this critical sector had to be changed recently to reflect this globalisation force. It is now Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy.

But what have the consumers been getting in return? Something in the neighbourhood of epileptic supply and sheer rip-off by the operators. Clearly, every innovation has its teething stages. But strangely, telecom services in Nigeria have retained a crawling position contrary to perfected models in neighbouring African countries. At industry average of five to 10 megabytes (MB) per second, Internet access in many parts of the country performs even poorer with abysmally snail-pace data that burn faster than the expiry date. Meanwhile, the country sits on submarine cables with capacity to deliver 32.8 terabits-per-second of data.

More disturbing is that Nigerian users pay some of the most expensive data subscriptions per average income in the world. Mobile subscription of 1GB at N2000 a month readily costs 11 per cent of N18, 000 minimum wage or 6.6 per cent of the proposed N30, 000 benchmark. Some subscribers pay as much as N5, 000 for data that last only a couple of days. At any rate, the cost overshoots the concept of affordable data, which Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) says should not cost more than two per cent of monthly income. Therefore, it amounts to double jeopardy to pay so highly for services that are not up to scratch, coupled with hidden reckless charges that have become a pastime among the operators.

It is against the backdrop of this daylight robbery that Pantami took up the gauntlet and for once, expressed the sentiments of longsuffering consumers. “The complaints from Nigerians are beyond what I can handle as it is today. People are complaining and it happened to me. You load your data but you barely use 20 per cent of it and the entire data is wiped off,” the minister said, as he gave five-working days ultimatum to NCC board to review the perennial infractions.

He mentioned, and rightly too, the infrastructural challenges facing the operators, such as the preponderance of vandalism and Right of Way (RoW). Not mentioned, however, are the issues of multiple charges numbering over 40 that are levied on the operators. Others are irregular power supplies, blackouts, brownouts and high cost of diesel to keep the base stations running. These are all speed-bumps over which the operators have laid claims and should not be ignored. Yet, the operating environment does not justify poor services and overbearing effects on the consumers.

As a rule of thumb, whatever is of use can as well be abused. It is with this foresight that the Act of Assembly, which sets up the NCC made clear provisions of regulatory responsibilities. The organic role of the regulator is to protect the consumers and regulate the commercial interest of profit-seeking investors. At least, three sections of the Act are dedicated to consumer protection and quality of services. Section 104, for instance, mandates all service providers to (a) meet such minimum standards of quality of service as the commission may from time to time specify and publish; (b) deal reasonably with consumers and (c) adequately address consumer complaints. Section 105 (1) directs that, “the commission may use any of its powers under this Act in the resolution of complaints received from consumers in relation to matters of customer service and consumer protection including but not limited to quality of service or the failure by a licensee to comply with a consumer code prepared under this Chapter.” Similarly, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act (FCCPA) 2019, seeks to protect the consumers in like manner. So, in principle, the consumer is protected, but not so in reality.

Indeed, it is shocking and curiously so that the NCC had to be given a marching order to live up to its responsibilities to the Nigerian State. It smacks of dereliction of duty to have teeming consumers, the minister and senators inclusive, agonise about quality of service for years without a respite. The NCC should be told in clear terms that it has failed the people in this customer-centric business.

Doubtless, the NCC board has the mandate of a regulator and must stop behaving like an operator in the industry. For how long would the NCC continue to push for higher charges for poor services? For how long too would NCC officials continue to stand as attorneys for operators to justify decrepit services and not how to ameliorate the pains of consumers? The image and perception of NCC are important. The moral question of its former Executive Vice Chairman and CEO cross-carpeting into the fold of operators is not lost on anyone. Under his watch at NCC did the operators, including the one he currently heads as chairman, get their licences. Such an inelegant dramatic turnaround that blurs the line between a regulator and operator will only earn the NCC more suspicions than a public trust.

Apparently, the commission needs to tidy up its acts, be more transparent and for once represent the yearnings of the consumers for quality data services at a reasonable cost. The public demands value for money, wherever it is possible. Telecommunication firms should not continue to take Nigerians for granted. It also behoves on the authorities to prioritise Internet Service Provider (ISP) start-ups and support them to grow, as they take more efficient Internet services beyond phones to unlimited access in homes and at affordable rates.

It is a known fact that people-oriented reforms don’t happen overnight in Nigeria. But this one is a matter of urgent national importance. It is about common good. The new minister, who should be commended for his resourcefulness and proactivity, has given an order that the NCC board and telecom operators should not disrespect in public interest.

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