ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, in this report, examines the roles regulations played in shaping growth of the telecoms sector in the last one year.
For the telecommunications sector, 2020 has been eventful across the globe. The importance of the sector was underscored by the Coronavirus pandemic.
The virus, which has remained a dreaded scourge, gave wings to technological innovations. The shifting of daily life online has been one of the most far-reaching consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. While it is not without its challenges, broad-based digitalisation has helped governments around the world to stem the spread of COVID-19 by halting human exploration completely and created new growth opportunities for private companies.
While the world grappled with the pandemic, most governments, Nigeria’s inclusive, imposed some forms of lockdown, typically involving a series of measures aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. For example, many countries banned travel flights; moved all forms of teaching online; closed non-essential businesses; imposed total or partial curfews and, where possible, encouraged employees to work remotely.
In Nigeria, this challenge snowballed into an economic recession, further worsening the stressed economy. However, some regulatory efforts in the sector gave the telecoms sector the opportunity to provide the needed digital innovations that helped to keep the economy afloat to some extent.
Hence, the sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased while other sectors dipped. Its share of GDP increased to over 14.30 per cent as of the second quarter, going by the data obtained from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS). In monetary value, the 14.30 per cent translated to N2.272 trillion.
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 within the period.
Accordingly, teledensity (the total number of telephone lines per hundred people in an area) increased from 96.76 per cent in December 2019 to 108.94 per cent by October 2020.
Regulatory activities on the part of the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) also resulted in increased connectivity in the country. From, 126 million in December 2019, Internet subscriptions rose impressively to 152.9 million as of October 2020. In the same vein, broadband (high-speed Internet) penetration maintained an upward swing to 45.93 per cent in October 2020, up from 37.80 per cent in 2019. Further to all these, there were some strategic initiatives in the industry.
New Strategic Management Plan (SMP) to drive Digital Economy
The NCC in June 2020, unveiled its new Strategic Management Plan (SMP) 2020-2024, which will be a pedestal to drive the implementation of the Federal Government’s digital economy vision. The launch of the SMP demonstrated the Commission’s improvement in performance matrix and efforts in accelerating 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 the Executive Vice Chairman, NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, is the fulcrum that will aid the telecoms regulator in driving its 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 Nigerian telecoms sector, taking into consideration the current and emerging trends in the industry and the numerous expectations of the diverse stakeholders.
The SMP 2020 – 2024 is the visioning document of the Commission for planning, monitoring, analysing, and assessing of NCC to meet its goals and set objectives. It has five pillars, which include regulatory excellence, universal broadband, promote the development of digital economy, market development; and strategic partnering and 25 intended outcomes.
Consultation on planned 5G technology deployment
Following the misinformation, miscommunication, misunderstanding and misconception that greeted the trial of 5G by the NCC in 2019, the Commission in 2020 began a deliberate regulatory measure by developing a Draft Consultation Document on the Deployment of Fifth Generation (5G) Mobile Technology in Nigeria. The document defines the implementation plan for the deployment of 5G in Nigeria. It provides a background into the benefits of 5G technology and outlines the Commission’s plans and strategies for a successful implementation of 5G in Nigeria and clearly presents guidelines for the relevant areas of the technology and the expectations of the Commission from the operators.
This Plan takes into account the expectations of all the stakeholders in the communications industry in Nigeria. Nigeria undertook 5G trials in selected locations within the country in collaboration with an Operator in 2019. The trial, among others, was to study and observe any health or security challenges the 5G network might present and Danbatta, has clearly stated that “For the avoidance of doubt, as with the previous technologies such as 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G, the Commission will not commence 5G deployment without due consultation with all relevant stakeholders.”
Boosting FG’s revenue generation
Within the last five years to 2020, the Commission generated and remitted N344.71 billion to Federal Government Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) from spectrum fees and operating surplus. 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 monitoring of Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and development of KPIs for 3G and 4G, all in a bid to ensure improved service delivery to telecoms consumers.
The Commission received commendation on this financial performance by the House Committee on Telecommunications, which visited NCC on an oversight function in October, 2020. The committee urged the NCC to sustain its current template of ensuring effective regulation of the telecoms sector in a manner that would be more mutually beneficial to the industry players, the consumers of the telecoms services and to the Nigerian government.
Approval for trial of e-SIM, and national roaming
In line with its commitment to putting Nigeria’s telecoms sector at par with technologies that can revolutionise consumer experience, the NCC granted approval for two mobile network operators (MNOs), MTN Nigeria and 9Mobile, to carry out a trial on the workability of embedded Subscriber Identification Modules (e-SIM) Service in Nigeria.
The trial, approved to run for a period of one year, will involve testing 5,000 e-SIMs by the two networks, subject to compliance with a number of regulatory conditions.
According to EVC of NCC, 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.
Similarly, the Commission also granted approval for MTN and 9mobileto trial national roaming service for a period of three months, commencing from August 1 to October 31. The two telcos configured their networks to begin test and simulation for customer experience. The trial approval covered a few local governments, designated as the National Roaming geographic area, in Ondo State.
Review of InfraCo project for effectiveness
In the year under review, the NCC beamed a searchlight on InfraCo framework and their funding options. To this end, the 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. It should be noted that the constitution of the committee was a sequel to the requirements of the NNBP 2020 to2025 and reports of relevant committees set up by the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which include 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 related to the imperative of reviewing the InfraCo framework to cater for the delays in take-off, change in the exchange rate, supply chain and other challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sanitising the industry of SIM-related crimes
The Commission is currently working mobile network operators (MNOs) with other agencies such as the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) in line with Federal Government’s Directive for telecoms subscribers to link their National Identification Number (NINs) with the SIM database with a view to addressing SIM-related crimes
In the year under review, spirited regulatory efforts were made by the industry to remove improperly-registered SIMs from the networks and a number of arrest of convictions of fraudulently-registered SIM registration by ‘operators agents’ were also made to serve as a deterrent to others, who may be engaging in improperly-registered SIM cards, which is a criminal offence in the country and a threat to national security.
The Commission also sensitized the consumers on this menace and encouraged them to stop the sale, purchase and use of pre-registered SIM cards as it constitutes a punishable offence under the law.
According to NCC, the use of pre-registered SIM cards gives cover for unwholesome activities like kidnapping; call masking, a threat to lives, bullying, armed robbery, identity theft, financial crimes and SIM swap fraud, among others.
In compliance with the directive, telecoms operators, under the aegis of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), appealed to subscribers.
ALTON disclosed that members have responded rapidly to the Federal Government’s directive by putting in place the processes and infrastructure necessary to enable them to incorporate existing National Identity Numbers (NINs) into the current SIM registration data and support subscriber enrolment into the National Identity database.
In a statement signed by the Chairman and Publicity Secretary, Gbenga Adebayo and Damian Udeh respectively, ALTON said it will continue to work closely with the government to deliver on the task ahead of them and ensure that the process is as seamless as possible for all customers.
ALTON informed that all MNOs have now received an enrolment and verification license from the NIMC or via the NCC, legally enabling them to verify NINs provided by customers and to enrol citizens into the NIN database.
The body explained that all operators have established various systems to enable subscribers with existing NINs to add them to their SIM registration profile.
According to ALTON, options deployed for customer ease and convenience include USSD strings, apps and other self-service online portals, walk-in stores and customer care lines.