Of National Roaming and Telecoms Resources

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Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta

BUSINESS/telecoms

The three-month trial on national roaming service by MTN and 9mobile as approved by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is expected to enhance efficient management of the country’s limited telecoms infrastructure and resources, writes Emma Okonji

In order to promote efficient use of telecoms resources through national roaming, the Nigerian Communications Commission, the telecoms industry regulator, came up with innovative idea to give approval to MTN and 9mobile, to carry out three months trial on national roaming service. Although the three months trial ended penultimate week, stakeholders in the telecoms industry are of the view that NCC should go ahead and license the two Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to begin national roaming service in the country.

According to them, the licensing of the two telecoms operators and others who may be interested and ready for national roaming service offering, would go a long way in addressing telecoms’ infrastructure deficit across the country, since national roaming will enable operators share existing infrastructure, which will eventually give room for effective management of telecoms resources across the country.

Infrastructure deficit

The need for more infrastructure build to ensure universal/seamless telecoms services across the country, has become a subject of discussion across the length and breadth of the Nigerian telecoms sector.

Although NCC has worked tirelessly to reduce access gaps from 217 to 114 currently, there still exist, noticeable infrastructure deficit in the industry especially in the rural and semi-urban areas of the country. This deficit is due to a lot of industry challenges, which has been slowing down accelerated infrastructure deployment by the operators. These include poor power situation in the country that compel operators deploy their own generators to power their base stations, Right of Way (RoW) issue, vandalism, theft of telecoms equipment at sites, multiple taxation and regulation, among others.

According to industry statistics, the telecoms industry only has around 50,000 Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) to support the entire population of over 200 million Nigerians. Only 37,000 of the BTS are 4G-enabled. Whereas, industry experts have said 80,000 BTS would be needed for effective and seamless telecommunications services in the country. Also, with respect to fibre connectivity, while the federal government is current targeting 120,000km of fibre optics across the country, slightly over 50,000 have been laid by various operators an institutions to bridge access gaps and support service delivery.

The deployment of innovative ways like the national roaming for seamless communication, will therefore help operators to share existing telecoms infrastructure that will enhance hitch-free telecoms service delivery across the country, among other benefits.

NCC’s Approval

NCC, this year, granted approval for two mobile network operators to carry out trial on national roaming service for a period of three months, which commenced from August 1, 2020 and ended on October 31, 2020. The two telecoms companies are Mobile Telecommunication Network (MTN) Nigeria and the Emerging Markets Telecommunication Service Limited (EMTS), trading as 9Mobile in Nigeria.

With the approval EMTS and MTN are expected to configure their networks to begin test and simulation for customer experience. The trial approval covers a few local governments, designated as the national roaming geographic area, in Ondo State.

Roaming Service enables a mobile subscriber to automatically make and receive voice calls, send and receive data, or access other services when travelling outside a particular network geographical area by utilising the network coverage of other networks with roaming arrangements to access service.

Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, said: “The primary objective of the national roaming service trial is to encourage network resource sharing among operators. This will lead to operational expenditure (OPEX) optimisation and capital expenditure (CAPEX) efficiencies, leading to freeing up of resources to expand mobile network coverage to unserved and underserved communities across the country, which will lead to improved Quality of Service (QoS) delivery to subscribers.”

The successful implementation of the trial will enable EMTS subscribers to access MTN network service within the national roaming trial geographical area without the need for an MTN Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) card,” Danbatta further said.

About National Roaming

National roaming offers completely neutral access, allowing different models to be adopted, depending on national regulators and other stakeholders. It is cost effective, accelerating return on investment (ROI) and reducing barriers to entry.

Supporting Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology and General System Mobile Communication (GSM) spectrum, voice and data services can be offered, as well as Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity. Self-contained and with solar power options, flexible backhaul via fibre or satellite means it can be delivered anywhere.

National roaming has become a key tool to lower the cost of deploying mobile coverage to eliminate the digital divide. To succeed, flexible, equitable access to infrastructure is key.

National roaming can also help in closing the digital divide, profitably enabling competition and new stakeholders, as well as providing shared infrastructure. Infrastructure can be deployed when and where needed, with accelerated ROI, enabling every operator to reach new customers.

National roaming is already operational in most advanced countries of the world.

Stakeholders’ Position

While commending the NCC for trying out innovative idea about national roaming and considering the positive impact in will have on telecoms operations in the country, the President, Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Olusola Teniola, advised NCC to license MTN and 9mobile for national roaming service offering and should automatically allow all other operators to enter national roaming agreements where they feel it is viable. This also presents a case for the introduction of Mobile Virtual Network Operators ( MVNO), Teniola said, adding that the consumers may see an improvement in quality of service rendered by their mobile service provider in areas where the operator lacks coverage. He said call drops would be minimised as well.

Addressing the issue of regulation, Teniola said: “No regulation is required for national roaming, as it is a technical solution that has been deployed to solve active infrastructure sharing on the Radio Access Network for more than 20 years. The pricing of voice, SMS and data services should not change based on this arrangement.”

Benefits

Speaking about the benefits of deploying national roaming service, the Director, Technical Standards and Network Integrity of NCC, Bako Wakil, said although there would be a thorough evaluation and assessment of how the trial between the two operators has run and the necessary regulatory measures put in place to ensure a full-blown rollout of national roaming among telecoms operator in the country, he however said t6e benefits of national roaming service are numerous both for the telecoms operators and their subscribers.

He listed some of the benefits to include: Extra source of revenue for mobile network operators; Less investment costs since infrastructure sharing divides the investment burden among the operators rather than being shouldered by a single operator; Promote efficient use of resources; Easy market entry; Better choice of service; Less negative environmental impact; and Promote universal service provision.

Commenting on industry statistics that will support easy rollout of national roaming service, Wakil said over the years, the telecoms industry grew in leaps and bounds in such a way that would support seamless deployment of national roaming service across the country.

According to him, the telecoms sector’s contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stood at 14.30 per cent as of the second quarter of 2020. In financial value, the 14.30 per cent translates to N2.272 trillion in Q2.

Telecoms investment now stands at over $70 billion currently. Broadband penetration stands at 45.43 per cent as at September, 2020; Basic active internet subscription has reached 43.7 million; Active voice subscription has increased to 205.25 million; Teledensity stands at 107.53 per cent. With these development, Wakil gave the assurances of the Commission that the telecoms sector is ripe and ready to support national roaming service delivery across the country.

Innovation

Over the years, the Commission has been in the forefront of encouraging innovations that have contributed to the growth and overall development of the telecommunications industry.

From the development of regulatory frameworks for collocation/passive infrastructure sharing, mobile number portability, leveraging television white spaces (TVWS) for ensuring affordable broadband services to rural, under-served and unserved areas of the country, to its most recent move to allow for spectrum trading and most recently, the idea of national roaming service under the leadership of Danbatta, the Commission has ensured that Nigeria remains relevant among the comity of nations adopting international best practices in the telecommunications sphere.

In 2016, the Commission came up with a consultation paper on national mobile roaming, where it explained its plans to implement a national mobile roaming strategy that will help operators in the country strengthen their operations.

According to Danbatta, national mobile roaming is a feature in several communication licences but it has not yet been utilized in the country. Danbatta said even though it was technically possible to provide facility for domestic roaming, appropriate legal and regulatory framework have to be in place in order to encourage as well as assist the operators in realising roaming arrangement between them without any uncertainty.

In furtherance of its commitment towards ensuring the continued growth and development of the telecoms industry and ensuring implementation of national roaming, the Commission in 2017 inaugurated an Industry Working Committee (IWC) to work out the procedure and modalities for implementing National Roaming and Active Infrastructure Sharing.

Subsequently, and in line with participatory model of industry regulation, the Commission has also held a number of various stakeholders where industry stakeholders had had the privilege to make their contributions freely and raise issues that will assist the Commission in instituting an all-encompassing framework that will continually contribute to the development of the industry.

One of the prominent of such stakeholders’ engagements was the Stakeholders’ Forum on National Roaming and active Infrastructure Sharing held on April 25, 2018 at the Lagos campus of the Digital Bridge Institute.

Speaking at that forum, Danbatta said “National roaming has the potential of promoting seamless communication of subscribers as they will be able to roam on the network of other service providers where their own service provider is unavailable or has limited network coverage. The benefits of encouraging active infrastructure sharing can also not be over emphasised. Not only will there be noticeable reduction in network deployment costs, the industry will also witness acceleration in the take-up of broadband services and gradual elimination of the rural-urban digital divide.”

Danbatta had told Nigerians during the Nigerian Society of Engineers Conference in Kano in 2019 that the commission was working on the national roaming framework that would afford telecom consumers true mobility without the need to carry multiple handsets or SIMs while travelling within Nigeria.

According to Danbatta, “National Mobile Roaming service is technically feasible but there are several pertinent issues which need to be addressed. Therefore, it is imperative to put in place an appropriate legal and regulatory framework to ensure that operators realise smooth roaming arrangements between them without any uncertainty.”