We tolerate poor telephone services even though the telephone is so important in our daily lives. The telephone can save lives and has indeed been used to save lives in emergency situations. The telephone has been used to prevent major crimes. The telephone helps to save costs associated with long distance travel. Rather than travel from one city to another, from one country to another or from one village to another, people use the telephone to exchange information, to transmit urgent messages, to transact businesses, to monitor market prices, to check the weather, and other activities.
There is no day that someone will not use the telephone to contact friends, family members or colleagues in the same city or village or another country. There is no day, for example, that nurses in hospitals or health facilities do not use the telephone to communicate with doctors and other paramedical staff. The telephone is so basic to our lives. We are in a paradoxical situation. We have the population to sustain profitable business in telecommunications. We have the environment to support the growth of urban and rural telephony. We also have the technology to boost telecommunications enterprise. What we do not have in Nigeria are honest, willing and committed telephone companies that are managed by skilled professionals. These are the people and organisations that can serve the telecommunication needs of our population.
In our environment, telephone companies routinely fail to provide the quality of services they pledged to offer prior to the grant of their operating licences. Telecommunication companies that are licensed to do business in the country have an awful record of performance. But they don’t seem to care and do not feel they have any obligation to their customers as long as they continue to make huge profits. People often say that it is possible to do anything in Nigeria and get away free. The telecommunications industry epitomises that statement. As telephone companies amass profits and smile about their sharp practices, many telephone consumers are frustrated with the substandard services they receive from the telephone operators.
Why would telephone consumers in Nigeria curse, swear, and sweat just because their telephones cannot work for reasons that are beyond their comprehension? In our society, there are weird and irritating problems experienced by telephone callers such as inability to reach their intended receivers, phones dropping off intermittently during calls owing to service difficulties, and callers listening as their calls are directed to unintended receivers. Sometimes you make a phone call and you hear unfamiliar voices chatting on another line that has obviously crisscrossed into your line. This is perhaps the strangest experience I have had in Nigeria.
If telecommunications service providers have failed their clients, so too has the industry regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). You would expect that, in an environment in which the rules and letters of business operations are upheld strictly and dispassionately, the telecommunications industry regulator would move quickly to punish companies that take their customers for granted. Not so in the Nigerian telecommunications environment. The NCC has a record of barking repeatedly like a bulldog against companies that provide low quality services or those that treat their customers badly.
The NCC must go beyond imposition of fines to hit the operators where it pains most. Telephone consumers in Nigeria deserve much more than they are receiving from telecommunications service providers. The companies record enormous profits every year but they are never keen to reinvest their profits so they can improve their equipment and the services they provide to consumers.
A few weeks ago, the NCC announced with fanfare that it had imposed heavy fines totalling N647.5 million on Airtel, Globacom and MTN Nigeria Ltd for their failure to meet what the NCC called their key performance indicators (KPIs) for the quality of service they provided to customers in the month of January 2014. Additionally, these three key players in the industry were banned from selling their SIM cards for the month of March 2014. They were also banned from engaging in any business promotions in their networks until they have demonstrated that their key performance indicators have improved substantially.
These penalties amount to a slap on the wrist of the companies because fines imposed on telecommunications service providers do not work. The fines have failed to serve as a disincentive to operators that violate the letters of the law. How many times would telephone operators be fined by the NCC before they can lift the quality of service they provide? In the last week of February 2013 (just one year ago), the NCC announced, as it does every quarter, that it had fined four telecommunications companies — MTN, Airtel, Globacom and Etisalat – to the tune of N22 million because they allegedly breached the ban the NCC imposed on their participation in lotteries and promotions. The NCC said further that it had also fined the same telephone operators the sum of N1.4 billion because they provided customers with poor services.
It is not clear whether the service providers paid the fines or whether the fines have had any significant impact on the standard of services the companies provide to customers. What is not in doubt is that the fines have not forced any company to collapse.
Enhancement of the quality of telephone services provided to telephone consumers in Nigeria requires much more than imposition of fines or issuing of threats to telephone operators. Telephone consumers are not born to receive second-rate services from their service providers. The mistreatment of telephone consumers in Nigeria should not be tolerated any longer. Who will save Nigeria’s telecommunications industry and telephone consumers from the incompetence of the industry watchdog and the dishonest, profit-oriented practices of service providers?
Levi Obijiofor is reachable on linkedIn