Setting Standards for Telecoms Regulation in 2021

Emma Okonji writes on the new standard set by the Nigerian Communications Commission for 2021 Regulation in any sector of the Nigerian economy has always been a tussle between the regulator and the industry players, who sometimes feel that the regulator forces certain undue policies down their throats.

Regulation in the telecoms sector has not been too different from what is obtained in other sectors of the economy, as telecoms operators sometimes see certain policies implementation as harsh, but with collaboration, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) had always carried telecoms industry players along, while remaining firm in discharging its duties as the telecoms industry regulator.

Telecoms industry stakeholders have had reasons to argue with their regulator, especially in issues around fines and short timelines in accomplishing certain tasks, but in spite of any form of argument, industry stakeholders have always believed that effective regulation, backed by global policy implementation, will always set the right path for telecoms growth and development.

The stakeholders are also of the view that wide industry consultation and collaboration, will further enhance telecoms growth, which NCC holds to a high esteem.

Bearing these in mind, the NCC has highlighted key areas that would help drive regulatory activities this year. Following the challenges brought by COVID-19, which led to a new normal in 2020, the NCC intends to positively impact the telecoms industry in 2021, especially in terms of improved service experiences for the current telecoms subscribers with over 208 million active mobile lines across networks.

The standards

The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, provided insights into the various regulatory activities to be embarked upon by the commission this year with a view to consolidating the achievements of the past five years of his administration by focusing on broadband penetration, consumer protection and empowerment, efficient resource utilisation, and facilitation of fibre infrastructure deployment this year.

Being one of the six agencies of government under the supervision of the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, that believes in effective planning to achieve results as well as evidence-based regulatory activities to accelerate industry growth, the commission is of the view that set standards will enhance strategic planning that will further transform the telecoms ecosystem in 2021.

Directly tied to achieving its regulatory targets in 2021, is the plan by the Commission to unveil a new five-year strategic vision plan (SVP) that will provide affective framework for the implementation of an already unveiled Strategic Management Plan (SMP) 2020-2024 by the commission.

Upon the expiration of NCC’s initial SVP anchored on 8-Point Agenda, the implementation of which has helped the commission to increase service availability, accessibility and affordability, the NCC’s management led by Danbatta has initiated the process for the development of another five years SVP. Already, the development of the new five-year agenda, which has reached advanced stage, is bound to be unveiled soon.

According to Danbatta, the impending SVP would ride on the new Strategic Management Plan (SMP) 2020-2024 unveiled in June last year. As a visioning document of the commission for planning, monitoring, analysing and assessment of the commission to meet its goals and set objectives, the proposed SVP and current SMP will be fully leveraged by the NCC management for serious improvement in performance matrix and its efforts in accelerating the implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) and the National Broadband Plan (NBP) 2020 – 2025 of the federal government.

No doubt, the effective implementation of the former SVP initiated by the NCC, helped in achieving and surpassing the 30 per cent broadband penetration set by the federal government by 2018, up from about six per cent broadband penetration in 2015, among others. Today, broadband penetration has reached 45.93 per cent as at October 2020, translating to over 86 million broadband subscriptions across 3G and 4G networks in the country.

Last year, the commission constituted a committee to review the framework for the licensing of Infrastructure Companies (InfraCo) and recommend sustainable funding options for effective implementation of the proposed national fibre project, taking into consideration the delays in take-off, change in exchange rate, supply chain and other challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The result of this effort is expected to produce a more robust InfraCo framework that will facilitate the deployment of broadband infrastructure across the nooks and crannies of the country, thereby enhancing broadband penetration towards achieving the 70 per cent penetration target of by 2025, increased connectivity and better user experience in 2021 and beyond.

According to Danbatta, “The InfraCo project is dear to the government because of its ability to enhance robust and pervasive broadband infrastructure to drive service availability, accessibility and affordability and we hope, with the cooperation we are getting from the federal government, through the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, will record more inroads in 2021 and beyond with respect to our reviewed InfraCo framework.”

Danbatta had, in October 2020, restated NCC’s commitment in ensuring that the project delivers maximum benefits for the economy at large, adding that the effective implementation of the InfraCo project and deployment of fifth generation (5G) technology, once the federal government gives the approval for deployment, will support the increased connectivity being witnessed in the country and revolutionise the country’s digital ecosystem.

Other standards

Another area of NCC’s regulatory focus that will receive increased attention this year, according to Danbatta, is in the issue of consumer protection and empowerment. Over the years, the Commission has created multiple channels through which it educates the consumers on their rights and privileges, as well as ensuring appreciable protection for telecom consumers from unwholesome practices by telecoms licensees and cyber criminals.
According to Danbatta, the NCC has contributed to the growth of the Nigerian economy by ensuring robust and resilient telecom infrastructure, making it possible for Nigerians to leverage the internet and, most especially, the social media and other digital platforms to run their daily activities as well as voice their views against corrupt practices in order to ensure good governance in the country.
Consequently, with the projected increase in the number of individuals, businesses and government institutions relying on broadband infrastructure in keeping themselves connected for personal and official communication activities within the context of the ongoing measures at containing COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, the EVC said the NCC was committed to consumer-centric initiatives. He said such initiatives would promote digital inclusion and advance the digital economy vision of the government in 2021.
Against the backdrop of the being ranked highest in terms of compliance to ethics and integrity by the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) last year among other sister agencies within and outside the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, the NCC said in 2021, it would be more committed to regulatory excellence, transparency and ethical standards.

Stakeholders’ position

Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Mr. Gbenga Adebayo, commended the telecoms regulator for its consistency and standard regulatory policy implementation in 2020.
According to him, “Telecoms regulation in 2020 was consistent, which is good for the telecoms sector growth, because a situation where there is inconsistency on telecoms regulation, it will negatively affects telecoms growth and development. Inconsistent regulation brings about a lot of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of subscribers.
“We were able to achieve so mush in 2020 because regulation was consistent. Although we are not in a perfect regulatory environment, but I am rest assured that our regulator, the NCC, has been much more reliable in its intervention and regulatory policy implementation. The telecoms sector is indeed glad to have one of the best regulatory agency in the country.”
National President, National Association of Telecoms Subscribers, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, who also commended NCC for its prompt regulatory intervention, said the commission had always been on top of its game in telecoms regulation and policy implementation. According to him, certain proactive decisions taken by NCC, guided the sector in becoming resilient all through the period of lockdown last year as a result of the spread of COVID-19 in 2020, where activities shifted online and telecoms infrastructure was able to contain the shift and sustained the Nigerian economy at those trying moments.
Ogunbanjo however, called for increased telecoms financing and bailout for financially weak telecoms operators, especially smaller operators.
“I strongly support those calling for the establishment of telecoms bank, where operators could access loans without double digit interest and heavy collateral, just like the Bank of Industry and Agriculture that address the financial needs to industry players,” Ogunbanjo said.

Building on existing policies

Danbatta said NCC would continue to build on existing policies, while turning out new policies that would best drive the telecoms sector.
According to him, “The further inauguration of the NCC’s Anti-Corruption and Transparency Unit (ACTU) on December 10, 2020 in Abuja, would therefore, more incrementally, position the NCC to continually identify corruption-prone processes, practices and procedures within the system with a view to institutionalising compliant and corruption-free processes. In 2021, the NCC’s efforts will be directed at prevention of corruption through defined standard operating procedures and adherence to public service rules, circulars, guidelines, among others.”
“As an independent regulatory agency, the NCC, in 2021, will continue to prioritise regulatory activities in the area of raising the bar of quality of service (QoS) across the networks, advancing its regulatory trial of national roaming and e-SIM, and finalising the development of a regulatory framework on Virtual Mobile Network Operators (VMNO). NCC will also work towards increasing stakeholders’ collaboration with more regulatory agencies and other private and public institutions that are needed to support the Commission’s efforts at deepening connectivity at affordability rates. NCC will ensure improved user experiences across all network, and will continue to play even more significant roles in the transformation of the nation into a more truly digital economy,” Danbatta further said.

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