The Vice President, Regulatory and Corporate Affairs at Etisalat, Ibrahim Dikko, spoke with Emma Okonji on service quality and the clamour for telecoms operators to list their shares on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, among other sundry issues. Excerpts:
There have been several calls on telecoms operators by Nigerians to list their shares on the Nigerian Stock Exchange, and MTN has begun the process of listing. What is your take on this and when is Etisalat planning to begin listing on the stock exchange?
Listing on the stock exchange is a good idea and it is necessary for telecoms operators to do so. But the current move by MTN to commence listing is based on the agreement it had with the federal government and the NCC, as part of the condition for the payment of its N330 billion fine. As for Etisalat, we see listing as something good for the government, the operators and the subscribers. But we are waiting for our board of directors to tell us the appropriate time to commence the process of listing. We have had meetings with the stock exchange in the past and we are willing and waiting for the right time to begin listing (process).
Poor service quality is a generic thing across networks, but what is Etisalat doing to address it within its network?
Improvement on service quality is an ongoing thing and we at Etisalat, will continue to improve on our services in order to serve the customers better. But the truth is that the quality of service that I do experience in Nigerian is the same elsewhere outside the country, even though people deliberately do not want to accept it that way. The indices and standards that NCC uses in regulating the telecoms industry in Nigeria, are of international standards and operators in Nigeria are measuring up to such standards. But that does not remove the fact that we still have some challenges in the telecoms industry in Nigeria. The challenges that we the operators contend with are numerous and most of these challenges, also affect service quality.
What does it take to fix the challenges?
It takes a lot to fix some of the challenges because some are beyond our control. For instance, we need fibre optic cables to connect some homes and offices, but we need to get right of way (RoW) permit from government to dig up the roads to lay the fibre optic cables and such permit is difficult to get, thereby slowing pace of telecoms expansion and development. Apart from the time it takes to get the permit, agencies of the federal government and the state government do charge the telecoms operators arbitrarily, just to get money from the operators. Again, we face the challenge of willful destruction of our facilities and when this happens, it affects service quality.
The federal government, through the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), has been making efforts to woo foreign investors to invest in the country’s broadband development plan, and government was in Thailand last month to do same. What are the indices that will likely attract more foreign investments into the country?
Nigeria has several Key indices that are attractive to foreign investments, and one of them is our large population size that is over 190 million people and 60 per cent of this figure are under 30 years of age. This is an indication that the country has large population of the youth segment and this age grade of people are technology savvy and proactive. Again, language is another key factor, because every Nigerian speaks English language, which is a globally spoken language, and this makes for easy communication between investors and the Nigerian people. Our infrastructure is still underdeveloped, and that is another opportunity for foreign investors to take advantage of to invest in our broadband infrastructure and other aspects of our infrastructure.
Etisalat Nigeria was at ITU Telecoms World 2016 conference in Bangkok, Thailand, where Nigeria featured prominently. What is your assessment of Nigeria’s participation at the conference?
Nigeria’s level of participation at ITU Telecoms World 2016 conference was great because this year, unlike previous years, the federal government was fully represented by the Minister of Communications and members of the National Assembly. They all participated at various sessions, especially the Nigeria Investment Forum that attracted many foreign investors. The Nigerian pavilion was outstanding and NCC brought young technology start-ups who showcased their solutions at the Nigerian Pavilion and also participated in the pitching exercise.
For me, it was an experience that is good for Nigeria because we were able to interact with the global technology companies because ITU Telecoms World is a global event that brings global players together to discuss new technologies. Today, economies of the world are implementing the ministry of digital economy to drive technology development in their countries and Nigeria must begin it think in that direction.
At the recently concluded ITU Telecoms World 2016, Nigeria was rated high for her clear policies on broadband penetration, but the country’s rating on ease of doing business has been very low, what can be done to improve on this?
There is need for government to come up with better policy implementation on the ease of doing business. For us as telecoms operators, there is little we can do because we are already in the country doing business and it is left for government to develop policies that will make business transactions a lot easier.
But I think government is making efforts to improve the rating on ease of doing business, and government is also making efforts to diversify the Nigerian economy since it is clear to government that oil revenue can no longer sustain the country.
Etisalat has been involved in young innovators’ development in Nigeria, and recently it organised the young innovator’s prize award, where it gave out huge sums of money to successful innovators to expand their solutions and businesses. What is the motive and how will it impact on ICT development in the country?
One of the things that stood us well in terms of success in the Nigerian telecoms market, is about technology innovation and what we have done around technology products and services. As a company with global vision, we are promoting the campaign of “You Can Do It Yourself”, hence we organised technology innovators competition to bring out the best from among Nigerians. The idea is to support up-coming technology innovators and give them hope of global growth and sustainability. For example, in 2008 when Etisalat commenced operations in Nigeria, we noticed that there was no telecoms engineering course in any of the Nigerian Universities. They only had engineering courses in Computer Science, Mechanical, Electrical, Electronics and Civil, but not in telecoms. So we introduced telecoms engineering at the master degree level so that those with engineering background in disciplines like Computer Science, Mechanical, Electrical, and Electronics among others, could do a master degree in telecoms engineering. Etisalat is not only supporting the universities that are currently running telecoms engineering, but it is also training the lecturers that will teach telecoms engineering. We are currently training four lecturers at Ph.D level in telecoms engineering and one of them is about to complete the doctorate programme with ground-breaking thesis in telecoms engineering.
Apart from these, we have also supported young technology start-ups at the Co-Creation Hub (CC-Hub) in Yaba, Lagos, where star-tups and entrepreneurs are mentored.
Recently, NCC threatened to sanction telecoms operators over the continuous broadcast of unsolicited SMS. Why are operators still making such broadcast, despite NCC’s warning?
The truth is that no operator wants to make its customers unhappy, and they are doing all they could to operate within the NCC regulatory framework and still satisfy their customers. May be the operators have not been able to advertise and make subscribers know what they have done so far to address the issue of unsolicited voice and data messages. The truth is that a lot of those messages do not come from
the operators. Those who broadcast such messages, however, used the platform of the operators to make such broadcast. Again, operators have introduced Do Not Disturb Me platform, which gives the subscribers the opportunity to freely opt out from receiving the messages. We are still discussing with the NCC to see how we can resolve all of that.
One noticeable trend in the telecoms industry is that operators have suddenly outsourced their base stations and masts to IHS, who now manages them. What value has this development brought to the telecoms industry?
In 2001 when Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) started, there was no wireless infrastructure in the country. What we had then was the NITEL telecoms infrastructure across the country. But when licences were issued in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2008, operators had to build their own wireless infrastructure, because there was none on ground. Six years, the guidelines on co-location of infrastructure came out because the NCC felt there were enough infrastructure that were built by the first set of operators, which could be shared among old and new operators. Then in 2013, operators saw the need to sell their base stations to infrastructure providers, to enable them concentrate on their core business of providing telecoms services to the people.
So what IHS has done is to buy up most of the base stations, built more and allow operators to collocate. Now the value this has brought to the telecoms industry is that it has saved a lot of cost for the operator and the money will be invested in network expansion and service quality. It has also allowed the operators to focus more on their core business of providing telecoms services.
Telecoms operators are currently busy rolling out 4G LTE network. Of what value is it to the subscribers and the telecoms industry?
Technology is evolving and operators have to move with the evolution of modern technology. When operators launched GSM services in 2001, they started with 2G, but in 2006, they rolled out 3G services, and today we are talking about the fourth generation Long Term Evolution (4G LTE) technology. The value that 4G is bringing to the telecoms industry is huge, in terms of speed of connectivity, downloads and uploads.
What is your take about smart cities development in Nigeria?
Smart cities development is a good initiative, but it can work perfectly only where there is existing infrastructure. Nigeria does not have the infrastructure to boost smart cities development and the cost to build the infrastructure and to set up smart cites in a particular state, may cripple the finances of such state. My view about a good smart city is for government to look at the basic services that people need and begin to provide the facilities that will enable people have access to such services in an affordable way. So to achieve something close to smart cities, government should provide pocket of facilities in different locations where people can go and hook on to, in order to have access. For example, licenced infrastructure companies (InfraCos) should be able to provide the facilities that people living around the locations covered by the InfraCos, could access.