Abass: Ubiquitous Broadband Will Drive Telecoms Growth



The Chief Executive Officer of ntel, Mr. Kamar Abass, spoke with Emma Okonji on the challenges of the telecoms industry and the need for increased broadband access to address poor service quality, among other issues. Excerpts:

The contribution of telecoms consumer to the Nigerian economy is put at N11.5 million in two years. What percentage of this amount did ntel subscribers contribute?

Telecoms subscribers on the ntel network have never had it so good in terms of their experience with our telecoms service offerings. They are experiencing better telecoms service on our 4G LTE network. So they have the latest generation of mobile services, which has enhanced their contributions to the Nigerian economy. We offer our customers various levels of services from our 4G LTE fiber connection and the speed of connectivity is very high.

We need to offer choice services that exceed the level of excellence and we need to offer steady services.

Are there no more issues of poor telecoms services?

There are issues of poor service quality, occasioned by the economic recession, which the country is currently facing. We are providing the best of telecoms services, but infrastructure is a challenge because we do not have the required number of base stations that will give full telecoms coverage across the country. We are faced with willful destruction of telecoms facilities and these also affect service quality. Today the county has over 150 million mobile subscribers across networks, but the number we are expecting by 2020, will be well over 220 million subscribers. The growth rate will be largely driven by broadband. It is expected that 2/3 of the total number of subscribers will be on mobile broadband. So there are lots of investments to make and we need our shareholders to release the cash for such investments.

Telecoms subscriber number declined in the first quarter of the year, from 154 million to about 152 million. What could be responsible for the drop?

The truth is that the number of 2G customers is declining because the 2G technology has been overtaken by 3G and 4G LTE technologies, which most operators currently provide. The 2G standard has always been an interim standard because 2G was dominated by voice, with little data offering, through the GPRS. 3G technology came and tried to collaborate data with voice, but 4G is a pure data technology in which data is the focus, but could accommodate voice in an Internet Protocol (IP) environment. So it is no surprise that customers are migrating from 2G to 3G and from 3G to 4G LTE. The 4G technology is better than 3G and the 2G in terms of speed of connectivity, picture and voice clarity among others, which is the reason for the drop in 2G and 3G technologies, especially the 2G technology and this could be accountable for the drop in subscriber number.

In one year of commercial rollout, how has the ntel brand fared?

In one year, ntel as a brand has done very well. We have set up a billing system that gives us better integration between the sales representatives and the customer care system. It has given us significant ease to operate in a unique way that is different from other operators. We have 70 per cent coverage in three states currently, with plans to expand to more states. We have made tremendous progress in one year on the number of customers that are now on our network. We got award from an American company as the fastest internet service provider, and I see this as a great feat in one year of rollout. But this is not even a surprise to us because we know we are the clear leader in the industry, offering 4G LTE services to customers.

Customers seem not to feel the strong presence and vibrancy of ntel because it eliminated the physical recharge cards and compelled customers to recharge their phones online. What is your take on this?

We sell recharge cards and use other available channels to have customers connected to the ntel network. The fact is that we are not ready yet to operate the physical recharge card system, but with time we will. Our network is a conceivable integration network, having the next generation billing system, and we are working on that even though we have not yet explored the physical recharge channel option.

Ntel offers 4 G LTE Advance network. What makes the offering differ from the offerings of other telecoms operators?

Now let’s look at it from the customers’ needs. Customers want easy access and they want to exchange information and share pictures at a very high connectivity rate, and this is faster with 4G LTE. On the supply side, we need only one site to cover several sites covered by 3G network, and once the area is fully covered, the better it is for customers to get fast downloads and uploads, with highly reduced latency period, which is a period of delay.

What is the penetration level of the ntel network?

Our coverage is expanding and we have 70 per cent coverage area in each of the three states that we presently cover, Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. Our plan is to ensure that customers on the ntel network are very productive when they subscribe to our 4G LTE services.  

There is a public perception that the ntel network is for the elites. What is your take on it?

That perception is completely incorrect because we have packages that cut across all cadre of people. Our packages are designed for both the high and low income earners in the society, with some packages having lowest level of pricing that is as low as N500 for the best return on investment. Customers can buy our unlimited package, which allows them to have unlimited access to the internet.

We have other packages that allow the customer to use a define volume of data, based on its budget limit. So we are not providing services for only the elites, because we have wide range of packages that address the needs and financial capacities of different customers.

How are telecoms operators maximising the forex opportunity created for them by the telecoms regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)?

We are in a world where we have to deal with issues affecting us. But if the NCC is making efforts to create a window of opportunity for telecoms operators in the forex market, we will welcome it as a good development because it will come with some forms of relief. The truth is that telecoms operators, alongside the ministries of communications and finance, have been lobbying for easy access to foreign exchange (forex), and as a priority sector that needs to purchase the needed equipment in foreign currencies, the telecoms operators need such widow of opportunity to enable us have access to forex. Although it is an ongoing discussion between NCC and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), but we are yet to benefit from it, because the telecoms operators are not yet on the priority list of the federal government for those sectors that should have easy access to foreign exchange. The negotiation is ongoing and we are glad that the ministries are supporting our request to be part of the priority list of the federal government for access to forex.

How is the economic recession affecting telecoms business, especially the ntel business?

Since we had our commercial launch last year, we were able to do the much we could, given the prevailing circumstances posed by the recession. We raised money to acquire the business, we also raised money to commence the first commercial rollout, and since then we have been in the business and we are now about to begin the process of raising another money to expand the business beyond our existing three cities. Telecoms is about the ability to connect people and we see that the customers are using data services more, probably because of the benefits attached to data services; but even with the economic recession, we are building more 4G LTE sites, and within one year, we have over 1000 4G LTE sites.

How does the broadband plan of ntel key into that of the federal government?

Our business plan is to have full broadband coverage areas and we are meeting up with that target plan. The reality is that we need to raise more money to invest in broadband. So to the extent that we can raise more money, we will deliver the broadband plan. All we need from the government is to ensure equal access to infrastructure and that our infrastructure is protected from vandalism by social miscreants. We also need a fair pricing regime from government to take care of the interests of the different players in the industry, according to their financial capabilities. We see ourselves as central to the broadband agenda of the federal government, because we are driving the industry to deliver broadband services.

What are the unique offerings that your customers are getting that make them feel at home with the ntel network?

We take delight in inspiring our customers and we will continue to give them the awesome online experience that they deserve such that whenever they are online, they will enjoy fast internet speed on our 4G LTE Advanced network. We are 100 per cent Nigerian company in terms of our staff strength and we are close to our customers because we understand their language and their culture.

Since the rollout last year, ntel had always focused on mobile telephony. Any plan to operate the fixed line telephony?

Whether we are offering fixed or mobile services, is not really an issue, because what matters is about connectivity and the ability of customers to make uninterrupted call and data flow. Today we are selling between 5 and 10 megabytes per second connections to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), using our 4G LTE network. We will select the best technology to deploy our services and we are not necessarily religious whether it is fixed or mobile service offerings. What we are doing is to give our customers the best experience with 4G LTE.  

What are your challenges that should attract government attention?

As far as telecoms business is concerned in Nigeria, ntel sees no challenges in deploying its 4G LTE Advanced network, because we see challenges as opportunities, after they have been fixed.

The market is moving away from voice to data and that is what is driving our operations.

Your services appear to be tilted more towards SMEs. What could be responsible for this?

We do not think it is a bad idea to package products and services for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), because truly, they are the engine of growth of any economy. However, we did not set out to address only the SMEs market, because we address all strata of interests. So we have broad appeal for products and services that address the needs of customers.

What other influence will the ntel Board Chairman, T.Y. Danjuma bring to drive the ntel brand that has gained so much traction in just one year of operation?

The General is a very important personality in the Nigerian economy and his presence as board chairman will do a lot to the company. I do spend a lot of quality time with him, and he is always bringing his wealth of experience to bear. So we are fortunate to have him as our Board Chairman.