A telecommunication mast

The arbitrary closure of telecoms sites by government agencies and recurring vandalism of infrastructure remain a source of concern to operators in the telecommunications sector, writes Emma Okonji

Telecoms operators in the county are faced with the heavy burden of infrastructure vandalism and sites closure, a situation that is not only affecting the huge telecoms investments across the country, but also affecting service quality on the entire networks.

It all started in the North-east where members of the Boko Haram sect blew up telecoms installations. Telecoms operators are currently struggling to reinvest in telecoms facilities, for the replacement of damaged telecoms infrastructure in the North east. Some of the operators have even abandoned some of their sites in the area due to the fear that the terrorist group might attack site engineers.

As if that was not enough trouble for the operators, the federal, state and local government agencies have decided to add to the operators’ pains by embarking on arbitrary closure of telecoms sites across the country over alleged non-payment of some levies imposed on the operators by the agencies.

The situation, no doubt, is creating a lot of pains for telecoms operators and they are beginning to cry out to government for immediate intervention.

Telecoms growth

Since the advent of Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) in 2001, the telecoms industry has witnessed tremendous growth that is impacting positively on the Nigerian economy. Every year, operators cover several milestones that have raised the growth of the Nigerian economy, as seen in their yearly financial reports. However, the operators are faced with challenges that are threatening the successful growth of telecommunications operations in the country.

The recent report released by Pyramid Research, a leading United Kingdom based global telecommunications, media and technology research company, shows that the growth of the Nigeria telecoms sector has been transformational, just as telecoms operators have added over 150 million subscriber lines to the national network since year 2001.

The easier access to basic communication services has transformed personal and business productivity and facilitated better government and security services delivery. ICT is also having a direct impact on the performance of government at all levels.

The sector accounted for about 10 per cent of nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2014 with a direct contribution of around N600 billion to the economy in the same year.

According to the Pyramid Research report, the sector accounted for over 30 per cent of the Nigerian Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) since deregulation in 2001 and well up to half of the country’s FDI in subsequent years.

In the area of job creation, the report said the telecoms sector has created over 20,000 direct jobs since liberalization and 1.5 million indirect jobs since deregulation.

Despite the listed progress made, it is of great concern that the sector is still operating below its potential and faces fundamental network operations and expansion challenges.

Operators’ ability to build capacity and viable infrastructure to support broadband rollout, is threatened by insurgencies and government’s undue interference, in an attempt to re-regulate the telecoms industry in their various states, while undermining the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the telecoms industry regulator that is empowered by the NCC Act of 2003.

The challenges

Quite a number of Base Transceiver Station (BTS), commonly referred to as base station sites, and well as exchanges and other critical equipment belonging to telecoms operators were destroyed by insurgents and it has remained increasingly difficult to restore services in those areas. Telecoms operators have continued to reinvest in damaged infrastructure and they have continued to appeal for support from the government for safe access to those sites and concession by way of relieves to members who are rebuilding damaged infrastructure in those areas.

Another area of great concern is the indiscriminate closure of telecoms sites by government agencies, who impose some levies and move to closedown telecoms sites with impunity, when there is delay in payment of such levies.

Telecoms operators continue to record cases of arbitrary site closure in many states of the federation in an attempt to force service providers to pay local taxes and levies, some of which are multiple in nature and most of which are only aimed at telecom operators.

Some of the levies include ‘Eco Tax for gaseous emission and gaseous emission’ even when the operators do not have moving machines and production lines.

Others are sewage, sanitation and public convenience levy, as well as sanitation and refuse effluent tax.

There is also the challenge of business premises tenement rate payment for BTS that are mounted in homes and business premises. But the operators have argued why the rate charged per base station in the urban areas are different from the rate applied for residential and commercial buildings when the infrastructure occupies the same land.

Again, multiple taxes are becoming a source of worry to the operators, which they said, has remain one of the most critical risk to the growth of the sector.

According to the operators, taxes are created in most states of the federation with no economic basis, and refusal to pay the taxes, often lead to arbitrary closure of telecoms base station and seizure of tools and equipment in very crude ways by tax agents of various states.

Operators’ stance

Unable to absolve all the levies, operators resolved that henceforth, arbitrary sealing of their sites, without following the guidelines clearly provided by the NCC and in line with best practices will no longer be tolerated.

According to the operators, any state or local government authority that closes telecoms sites, will face the consequence of not reopening such sites. They have vowed to serve the necessary warnings and that if such practices continue, they will be faced with two options: Firstly, is to pay the charges as levied by such state government, and then increase the tariff chargeable for calls originating and terminating from networks in such states.

“Secondly, where such actions on the part of government continue, we shall then advise all our members, after due consultation with relevant authorities, because of the security and economic implications, to shut down the entire network in such state for one full day as a final warning to such state or local government area.”

Telecoms operators are of the view that the industry supports many other economic sectors of the economy, and they have insisted that unless telecoms operators have first level of protection by government, it will be difficult to continue to provide uninterrupted services with the type of vulnerability that telecoms infrastructure are exposed to.

Seeking government’s intervention

Worried about the challenges faced by telecoms operators, the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), led by its Chairman, Gbenga Adebayo, recently paid a courtesy visit to the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, and the Inspector General of Police, Solomon Arase, at different times, to seek government’s intervention.

During the visit to Osinbajo, Adebayo stressed the need for corporate governance that would provide a level playing ground for telecoms operators to thrive.

Speaking on corporate governance and support for government, Adebayo said: “Your Excellency, I would like to emphasize that the principles of good corporate government is key to our members, therefore, we will continue to operate according to the laws of the land in line with best practices and shall continue to work according to the provision of the Nigerian communications act establishing the NCC. We pledge our loyalty and support for the government and people of Nigeria as an industry that is in the fore front of our national security and technological development.”

While presenting Osinbajo with copies of industry report on ‘Socio-Economic Impact of Telecoms in Nigeria’, Adebayo called on him to tackle the challenges in order to usher the Nigerian ICT industry into the next decade of growth, while calling for speedy implementation of the declaration of telecoms infrastructure as critical national infrastructure that deserves government protection.

“We hereby appealed to the President and Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, for a presidential declaration of “telecom Infrastructure as Critical National Security and Economic Infrastructure” as provided by the cybercrime law of 2015,” Adebayo said.

During ALTON’s recent visit to the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Solomon Arase, the association also called on the Police boss to address the challenges of telecoms site closure. Adebayo said government agents were in the habit of using the Police to intimidate telecoms site workers and to close down telecoms sites.

According to him, “Telecommunications development in Nigeria is playing an integral role in our march towards a greater country. Telecommunication services have greatly improved our quality of life as a people. From basic voice call, to internet services and to numerous value added offered by our members. But despite the progress made, we are still facing a number of environmentally related problems in particular, on the issues of interference with the smooth operations of telecom services.”

Speaking on the closure of telecoms sites, Adebayo said: “The incidence of closure of our members’ BTS sites and other telecommunications infrastructure on the excuse of non-payment of arbitrarily imposed taxes and levies imposed by states and local government authorities in the name of Internally generated revenue (IGR) is having adverse effect on our quality of service.”

He quoted the Taxes and Levies Law of 1998, as saying that in its section 2 (1) that members of the Nigeria Police shall only be used to collect taxes in accordance with tax laws, but wondered why government agencies use the Police to close telecoms sites without due respect for the law.

Adebayo called on Arase to direct all Police commands to kindly and strictly enforce taxation demands, pursuant to court orders only.

Responding, The IGP stressed that he wanted the association, through its members, to continue to help the Police in the Kidnapping cases. He said the Police should be able to intercept any kidnapper within 48 hours of the crime if there is adequate telecoms infrastructures on ground.

Arase said “the Police authority is ready to collaborate with ALTON, to address its challenges, while calling for more effective collaboration between the Police and ALTON.

Now that ALTON has made bold to take its challenges to government, it behoves on government to rise to address the issues to enable telecoms subscribers enjoy better service quality.