The mobile telecoms service industry in Nigeria is growing by leaps and bounds. One proof of this quantum leap is the number of mobile phone subscribers. This has hit 160 million and still rising. However, there are issues that threaten to kill the industry. Two of them are very critical: operator indebtedness and consumer protection. It is the job of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the industry regulator, to ensure that the industry stays afloat and the consumer gets value for his money.
To deal with the first issue, NCC recently gave permission for creditor operators to disconnect others indebted to them from their networks. Explaining the seriousness of the problem, Mr. Sunday Dare, NCC’s executive commissioner for stakeholder management, said “over the years the industry has been plagued by the serious problem of interconnect and facility indebtedness. Some operators have racked up huge debts to others and have simply refused to pay.” According to him, “indebtedness in the industry is at an embarrassingly high level and the whole telecoms industry is at risk of failure if we do not act.” He said, in the first place, we should not have come to this sorry pass in an industry dominated by pre-paid subscribers. That it is so is because some operators are taking “unfair advantage” of the NCC Act 2003 that says no operator can disconnect another from their network without the approval of the commission. On its own part, NCC had until now refrained from giving its permission because it did not want consumers to bear the brunt of such a decision. However, now its hand has been forced to issue a final pre-disconnection notice.
The second issue related to the first. It has to do with unsolicited value-added service subscriptions and unlawful deductions from consumers’ accounts by operators. After several appeals by NCC for an end to this illegality had failed, the commission has decided to apply sanctions. This is in response to consumer complaints brought against the operators by the Consumer Protection Commission (CPC). These forced subscriptions and illegal deductions have made the mobile network operations very rich, yet the services they offer have not improved in quality terms. CPC’s director general Babatunde Irukera has welcome NCC’s “push for sanctions”, describing it as an “unprecedented yet important initiative”.
We are for anything and everything that the regulator will do to grow the industry and also protect the consumer. However, we fear the NCC is often the source of its inability to rein in recalcitrant operators. That they have not complained about the inadequacy of the existing legislation suggests the problem lies elsewhere. Some of its very top officials have been known to have compromised themselves by accepting tips in the forms of handsets and airtime as well as board member appointments from operators. For it to salvage its damaged integrity and credibility as a regulator, the NCC must first clean up its Aegean stable. This is the only way it can be firmer with the mobile network operators.