The Chief Executive Officer of Spectranet, Mr. Ajay Awasthi speaks on the benefits of investing in customer service as well as the need for investments that will further drive broadband penetration. Emma Okonji presents the excerpts:

Licensed Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) are playing important roles in terms in rolling out broadband infrastructure across the country. Are these roles helping Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to deploy their services?

The biggest challenge of rollout at this point in time is the cost of bandwidth. We can carry traffic from Lagos to London at one-quarter of the cost we have to spend to carry the same traffic from Abuja to Lagos or Port Harcourt to Lagos. And this is so because we lack sufficient broadband infrastructure in the country. If we consider moving into Kano or Kaduna, practically there is no infrastructure. There are no lease lines. The ones that are available are too expensive. The cost of renting space from the tower of InfraCos is prohibitive. More infrastructure should be provided for ISPs to function effectively. Bringing down the cost of using infrastructure is equally important. These suggestions will boost the viability of the industry and ISPs.

Internet service customers are clamouring for reduced cost of bandwidth. What could crash cost of internet bandwidth in the country?

It is true that the cost of internet bandwidth is still high in Nigeria and one of the ways to crash cost is for more companies to come on board and erect more towers and make prices to be more competitive. Certainly, we will witness a surge in the number of viable ISPs if this is achieved.

Telecoms operators were able to come together to erect infrastructure like telecoms masts. Today we have companies whose major duty is to build telecoms mast and lease them to telecoms operators. Why is it difficult for ISPs to do same?

The cost of laying fibres is quite expensive. Getting permissions is another limitation. However, there are companies renting out fibres to ISPs at the moment. But we need more of them in the market to create infrastructure for ISPs to roll out much faster.

Recently, NCC stated that 40 million Nigerians don’t have access to internet even though mobile internet penetration is growing in millions. What are you doing to bring in people who are outside the internet space?
One of the key drivers of internet penetration is availability of compatible devices at affordable prices. So, if more numbers of smartphones enter into the country at affordable rates, more people will get connected. If import duties are reduced, prices will come down. Government should help us in bringing in these devices at cheaper rates so that we can make them affordable to customers. It is our desire to bring the remaining 40 million Nigerians without internet access to speed, and ensure that all Nigerians have internet access, but we also need government intervention and support to achieve this.

Nigeria has 30 per cent broadband penetration target by December 2018. The regulator said it has put the necessary machineries in place to achieve it, but insisted that ISPs like Spectranet must play their roles to achieve the target. What are you doing to achieve the maximum broadband target by the end of 2018?

Yes, we have our deferent roles to play in achieving the country’s broadband target, and we at Spectranet are doing so much to ensure that the target is met. However, the regulator must understand that we are in business to make reasonable money whilst we offer internet solutions to our customers. If we don’t achieve this, investors wouldn’t bring in the required capital. That is a fundamental point. Spectranet is working towards this targeted goal but the infrastructure required to support this is in short supply. Rate of tower rentals in Nigeria is one of the highest in the world and the cost of bandwidth is high too. This implies that the core structure critical for driving this goal is completely unfavourable.

On the other side, we have telecoms operators offering data at rates which are below cost, and these rates are adversely affecting the ISP market. Due to the absence of data floor price, it is practically difficult for ISPs to match up with the pricing of telecoms operators who offer both voice and data services to customers in the same data internet space where we operate as traditional ISPs.

Going by the scenario of pricing you just painted, what do you expect the regulator should do to address the situation?

The industry regulator, the NCC has been quite sensitive in regulating the telecoms industry. I am sure they understand this issue very clearly. But even at that, NCC should step in urgently to announce floor prices for data. There is a delay in releasing the standard rates for data floor price for the industry. Once this is achieved, it will address the issue of pricing and further stabilise the data internet market so that smaller operators can co-exist with bigger operators in the market space. This is critical to the survival of ISPs considering some of the activities and data promotions of telecoms operators.

At the moment, KPMG is carrying out a study on understanding the core structure of providing data services to customers. I urge them to do a good research on the study and come up with possible solutions that will address the challenges of the industry.

Spectranet has continued to invest in new solutions that will enhance customer services, especially with the recent investment on Express Shops. Could you please shed more light on the Express Shops and what they mean to the consumers?

Differentiators in the internet service market are not restricted to product and pricing. Customer engagement is important to us because it is critical to us as a brand. The introduction of Spectranet express service outlets is hinged on the importance of customer engagement. We believe it is very important for the company to excel in that regard. Spectranet embarked on this journey six months ago to uplift our customer service offerings from good to being the best-in-class in Nigeria. We want to be up there as the best-in-class in addressing customers’ concerns. In the last six months, we have done a lot in terms of expanding arms-length service footprint. We are ensuring that there is a Spectranet shop resolving customer service issues, just within 2-3 kilometres. In Lagos, we have a couple of shops created and operated by the brand. It is a reflection of the business terminology, Company Owned Company Operated (COCO). We have about 12 of them scattered across Lagos. On the other hand, we have Franchise Owned, Franchise Operated (FOFO) outlets. There are about 13 of them run and operated by franchisees approved by Spectranet. This puts the total number of express outlets at 25 at the moment. By December this year, we should have 35 outlets. It is going to be the way forward. We are keen on spreading them evenly across the state.

How will this initiative improve service delivery and customer experience?
The definition of customer service extends beyond addressing customer’s complaints. As a responsive organisation that responds fast to customers’ needs, we always ensure that we meet customer’s demands, which of course is the basic for us, being the fundamental level of customer service. We regard customer engagement as a journey, thus we started working on what we refer to as improving the Customer Service Quotient (CSQ) of the organisation. CSQ simply means how responsive and sensitive an organisation is towards the customer. It is not restricted to the customer service department only, as it cuts across all departments, including the office of the CEO and the office of the Head of Marketing. CSQ should be a cultural issue. If the culture is not properly communicated from the front desk to various departments of the organisation, we would never succeed. We would never be up there. A serious-minded organisation yearns to offer the best in terms of customer service.

We have created channels for customers to express themselves. We have eased the process of customers’ communication with the organisation. The world is in a digital era and in this era, we felt it was imperative to revamp our website. We had to redesign our website to make the customer express himself/herself freely, and as well purchase and get solutions without stress.

Also, we thought our customers would like to engage with us while on the go. Most times, they are always with their smartphones. We have created an app to address this. I am happy to share that the feedbacks we have received so far are encouraging. Customers are pleased and happy with the simplicity of the app. In this era of Artificial Intelligence (AI), we also felt it was important to infuse elements of AI into our website and app. This led to the introduction of Eva, a chatbot we created to interact with customers. Eva provides answers, solutions and responses to questions and inquiries anytime of the day, 24/7.

The brand is concentrating more on customer service than growth. Could this mean that growth is shrinking?

It is not exactly so. I think the philosophy here is about service business. If you do well with customer service, sales will automatically increase. We believe that there is a bigger space out there and we just want to occupy that space by excelling in customer service. I am optimistic that once we have done that, we will have meaningfully engaged customers and business would be on the path of growth. That is why we are doing so much with creating sales and service outlets located within arms-length.

You have used some catchy words to drive this, are they connected to security investment made so far in upgrading the system and service experience?

We are quite mindful of the fact that customer service quotient is important. It is not just about the creation of solutions. One of the major enablers of IP networks is the 4GLTE advance technology because they are internet based in that sense. 4G LTE is a victim of cyber-attacks and threats. It is ideal to put up firewall to protect your systems. The purpose of the firewall is to keep on detecting those threats.

Across the world, there are automated bots. People do mischiefs; they meddle with your networks and then gain access to your customers. You would have experienced this with mails. At times, your mail box gets infected with embarrassing mails. These bots constantly search for vulnerabilities.

We understand that it is important to be one step ahead of those bots. This influenced the upgrade of firewall protection for our systems. We brought in the latest generation of firewall, Firepower 9300 to secure our customers. It is the first of its kind in Nigeria. The firewall is intelligent, it detects viruses and threats in data packets transmitted in large quantities from our systems.

We have made huge investment in networks so far. We are almost through with our optimisation while we are focusing on Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) which can prevent sophisticated level of threats. Safeguarding our customers and business interests is important to us as a brand. We understand that some of our customers have websites that deserve the right kind of protection. We have invested significantly in this regard. That is why we have put in place the latest kind of firewall to guarantee safety.

But your industry seems to be shrinking with the number of ISPs in the market at the moment. What are the factors behind this development?

The issues are contextual. Clearly, the challenges we are experiencing at the moment has to do with the viability of the industry. Without industry floor pricing, the market may continue to shrink. As a broadband provider, we have a niche which is high value customers who want high speed, larger number of GBs and nice experience. However, the cost of servicing these customers is very high. When a customer raises a concern, we deploy a fix service executive to take care of the concern. There are over 100 fix service executives working with us at the moment. The bigger players, who are the traditional telecoms operators like MTN, Globacom, and Airtel can afford to slash data prices because they have significant customer base. However, their actions are impeding the services rendered by traditional Internet Service Providers