On August 4, 2020, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta's tenure as Executive Vice-Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) came to an end. Nigeria's telecom sector looks set to begin another five-year journey with Danbatta at the helm given the President's renewal and subsequent Senate confirmation.
Before his appointment in 2015, he was the Vice President of the Digital Bridge Institute (DBI), International Centre for Advanced Communications Studies, an institute established by the NCC in 2004 to build capacity for the Nigerian/African telecom industry.
Nigeria's telecom sector has witnessed many changes since 2015. It has been an eventful ride filled with major milestones, but there is room for improvement.
The 8-point agenda
In January 2016, a few months after his appointment, Danbatta unveiled the NCC's 8-point agenda for the telecom industry covering 2015-2020. The agenda was closely linked to the then National Broadband Plan for 2013-2018 and looked to make services available, affordable, and accessible.
In summary, the 8-point agenda is listed as follows:
- To facilitate broadband penetration through access to and use of affordable fixed and mobile broadband
- To improve the quality of all telecom services by promoting the availability of reliable critical infrastructure
- To maximise the availability of spectrum to provide diverse and affordable services while ensuring that spectrum acquisition does not distort market competition.
- To promote ICT innovation and investment opportunities in ways that will increase investment in youth and SMEs.
- To facilitate strategic collaboration and partnership with relevant stakeholders to foster development.
- To protect and empower consumers from unfair practices by informing and educating them in their use of ICT services.
- To create a competitive market for ICT services that will promote competition, inclusive growth, new investments, job creation, and consumer satisfaction.
- To ensure regulatory excellence through effective regulatory framework, strict compliance and enforcement monitoring, among other obligations.
Though challenges still abound, these points have witnessed varying degrees of success.
As of 2015, Nigeria's broadband penetration stood at 10%, and it went up to a questionable 31.5% by the end of 2018. This meant the 30% target was exceeded by 1.5%. Currently, broadband penetration reportedly stands at 41%.
In 2020, Nigeria approved a new National Broadband Plan 2020-2025, where it targets a 70% penetration by 2025. Approximately 30% more than the current figures.
Though targets for 3G/4G penetration have supposedly been met, the new plan is to achieve 90% 4G/5G coverage by 2025.
However, Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative and digital rights activist, has since questioned the metrics by which the current figures were obtained.
Quality of service and spectrum
The quality of telecom services in the rural parts of Nigeria still leaves a lot to be desired. The quality of service has contributed to the migration of some businesses to places with a more reliable Internet connection.
Though under Danbatta the NCC mandates telcos to regularly submit quality of service reports, the issue remains a structural one in Nigeria.
Danbatta says the NCC has set up a quality of service task force and is currently engaging stakeholders on instances of multiple taxations, multiple regulations, irregular right-of-way pricing, and indiscriminate shutdowns of base stations.
In 2020, some of these discussions appear to be yielding fruits. So far, seven states have either waived or drastically reduced right-of-way charges for laying fibre Internet cables.
The NCC states that it has encouraged the refarming of various frequencies to improve their efficiency. However, only a few more 4G spectrums have been released so far. In 2019, it released 5G spectrum to MTN for its trial of the 5G network in Lagos, Abuja, and Port Harcourt.
In 2019, the NCC facilitated the listing of two telecom companies -- MTN Nigeria and Airtel Africa -- on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE). The arrival of both telcos was a huge boost to the stock market, and they have since joined the ranks of the country’s most valuable companies for investment.
To foster the broadband plan for 2025, Danbatta helped secure a ₦263 billion ($732 million) fund for the achievement of this plan. According to Danbatta, the project was a public-private partnership agreement with the government providing ₦65 billion ($168.8 million).
Consumer Protection and compliance
The NCC boss has repeatedly emphasised that the commission’s primary focus is on the consumer. As a result, he has approved several initiatives with regards to consumer protection, resolving complaints and consumer education.
One of the most popular initiatives was the introduction of the Do-not-disturb (DND) rule, that greatly reduced the rapid rate of unsolicited messages to consumers. At the time, customers would receive tons of messages and sometimes have their airtime deducted when they subscribed by mistake.
The arrival of the DND also affected several businesses that offer Value-added services (VAS), some of which fell miserably, while others found a way to innovate beyond the reach of the NCC’s directive.
Besides the election of 2019, the commission has strictly adhered to this rule and has fined telcos found defaulting these rules. The most recent being Airtel and 9Mobile.
The NCC also ordered the suspension of unregistered or improperly registered SIM cards as part of its SIM registration exercise. In 2015, it carried out an audit where it fined MTN, the country’s largest telecom operator, $5.2 billion for violating the order.
Another major point in Danbatta’s agenda has been regulatory excellence and the building of frameworks. In the past five years, this has produced a mix of positive and negative directives, regulations, and framework.
In March 2019, the NCC tagged the Google Free WiFi initiative as illegal. This was a strange move because the tech giant partnered with locally licensed companies and the vice president was present at the initiative’s launch.
The Commission also stated that it planned to regulate Over the top (OTT) services like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Skype.
In 2018, despite Danbatta admitting that there was a delay in reaching a subsidy agreement with infrastructure companies (infracos), the Commission told two newly licensed infracos to begin rollout or risk having their licences revoked.
Also in 2018, the NCC developed a framework to save small telecom operators and promote competition in the telecom sector.
The NCC was also able to aid the resolution between telcos and banks during their dispute over who should pay USSD charges.
What does the future hold?
Despite the well-documented challenges of 2018, the future seems bright for Nigeria’s telecom sector. Most of Danbatta’s targets during his tenure have come to fruition in 2020.
Some of them are the crashing of RoW charges in several states, the President’s approval to criminalise vandalism of telecom infrastructure by declaring it a critical national infrastructure, and massive fibre projects going on around Lagos and other parts of Nigeria.
The NCC has also developed a policy framework for 5G development. A plan seeking to position the country to reap the benefits of the new technology being rolled out gradually.
The Commission recently unveiled a five-year Strategic Management Plan 2020-2024 (SMP) where it seeks to create sandboxes, accelerators, and regulate social media platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, and others.
The NCC is yet to complete the harmonisation of SIM registration data which might reduce the inflated figures on its industry statistics page. It still has to overcome the bottlenecks to Internet penetration in Nigeria.
Danbatta received several honours for his services during his first tenure, and his next five years seem set to be an eventful one.