Since Nigeria’s mobile telecoms sector was liberalised in 2001, call quality has improved dramatically, primarily on the back of some $32bn in telecoms-directed investments made by the nation’s four leading mobile operators. This high level of spending has helped turn the 184m-person country into the largest mobile telecoms market in Africa, boasting over 150m active subscribers in July 2016, according to data from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the federal telecoms regulator. However, the rapid rollout and uptake of successive mobile telecoms technologies – including 2G, 3G and 4G LTE – has resulted in high demand pressures on network infrastructure and service provision, forcing operators to navigate a number of complicated situations.
MONITORING EFFORTS: Indeed, for the past decade Nigeria’s mobile operators have faced a wide variety of quality of service (QoS) challenges, including dropped calls, voice quality impairment, busy signals and SMS delivery failures or delays. While QoS has improved considerably in recent years – largely as a result of the implementation of state-led quality monitoring efforts since the mid-2000s – technical, political and other issues continue to negatively impact connectivity today.
With this in mind, in early 2016 the NCC launched an eight-part strategic vision, titled the Eight-Point Agenda, that addresses Nigeria’s QoS issues directly as part of an ambitious blueprint for future sector development. According to Umar Garba Danbatta, the new executive vice-chairman and CEO of the NCC, the plan includes measures to improve NCC oversight and boost internal controls regarding QoS issues, facilitate easier infrastructure sharing among operators and remove extant barriers to smooth mobile telecoms operations in the future.
The Eight-Point Agenda builds on more than a decade of QoS-focused regulations and development initiatives put in place by the NCC, the Federal Ministry of Communications (FMC) and other oversight entities. “We have an avalanche of avenues to take on the complaints of people with respect to service provision by telecommunications companies,” Austin Odoh, a director at the NCC, said at a telecoms-related conference in Nigeria in late 2015.
CHALLENGES: Telecoms subscribers and operators face a wide range of interrelated issues. At the operator level, the installation and maintenance of Nigeria’s large and still-expanding telecoms infrastructure presents a range of technical challenges. From a subscriber base of fewer than 1m people in 2001, the mobile segment has seen 15-fold growth over the past 15 years. In addition to the technical hurdles inherent in adding users at such a rapid pace, the four major mobile operators – namely the local firm Globacom, the UAE’s Etisalat, South Africa’s MTN and India’s Airtel – have had to install new infrastructure across Nigeria’s large and complex geography.
Furthermore, maintaining a continuous power supply has long been a major issue, particularly at remote base stations. Nigeria’s grid capacity is less than that of the small, 1m-person state of Delaware, and as a result, most operators use a mix of solar and diesel-powered generators to power their remote infrastructure. This is effective but also expensive. “To ensure that customers do not experience a drop in internet connectivity, many internet service providers have multiple generators to ensure uptime,” Jamil Chaptini, general manager of Cobranet, a local internet and data service provider, told OBG. “While still challenging, the overall situation in Lagos has dramatically improved over the past seven years.”
Mobile operators soon realised that many of their installations were being vandalised on a regular basis. This issue persists today, with operators reporting cut cables, damaged base stations, pilfered generators and stolen equipment of all kinds across the country, particularly in areas that have faced security concerns recently, such as the Delta region and the north-east. “Millions of Nigerians are directly and indirectly employed by [the telecoms] industry, earning reasonable incomes,” said Tony Ojobo, the NCC’s director of public affairs, in a speech about telecoms sector vandalism delivered in February 2016. “That is why we are here to campaign against vandalism and to tell our fellow citizens to be part of the war against vandalisation of telecom infrastructure.”
BUREAUCRATIC HURDLES: Another key issue that has had a harmful impact on QoS in recent years is the levying of multiple taxes on mobile infrastructure, with negative consequences for operators that refuse to pay in full. For instance, in March 2016 MTN announced that its facilities in Ondo State had been closed by the government over disagreements about the firm’s financial obligations to the state. “Our association is very concerned about the recurring cases of telecom site closure by government agencies,” Gbenga Adebayo, chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), an industry group, said in a statement in early 2016. “We continue to record cases of arbitrary site closure in many states of the federation in an attempt to force service providers to pay taxes and levies, some of which are multiple in nature and most of which are only aimed at telecom operators.”
REGULATORY FRAMEWORK: The government has been involved in monitoring QoS standards in Nigeria since at least 2007, when the nation’s upper legislative house set up a committee to look into mobile operator inefficiencies. Since then the monitoring of QoS in the telecoms sector has become well established. The NCC maintains minimum QoS standards across a variety of metrics, which it checks on a regular basis, levying fines and in some cases implementing other sanctions on operators that continually fail to provide high-quality services. The commission’s QoS system consists of a series of key performance indicators (KPIs), developed and implemented by the regulator over a number of years.
As of mid-2016 the NCC’s KPIs were linked to a wide range of technical measurements, including metrics for call completion rates, answer seizure ratios, call setup and drop rates, post-dialling delays, bit error measurements, busy period channel congestion metrics, data and speech rates, and SMS-MMS incorrect feedback percentages. In addition to technical metrics, a handful of the commission’s KPIs measure customer service, including indicators related to customer satisfaction, the speed of problem resolution, billing integrity, customer care accessibility, the number and service speed of customer interface points, and recharge card performance.
In recent years the NCC has taken action against firms that fail to meet QoS standards. Between 2012 and 2015, for instance, the regulator issued a handful of fines, in the range of N10m ($31,600) to N800m ($2.5m), to the four major operators for a range of offences, including those related to a failure to carry out number porting requests, call drop rates and channel congestion issues. In October 2015 the NCC issued a N1.04trn ($3.3bn) fine to MTN – the largest ever issued by the regulator – citing the failure of the operator to disconnect more than 5m unregistered SIM cards from its mobile network. Since then, MTN has settled with the NCC for a reduced payment of N330bn ($1bn) (see overview).
FUTURE PLANS: Under the NCC’s 2015-20 Eight-Point Agenda, beefing up the government’s oversight regarding service quality and its ability to enforce QoS standards has become a priority. The second pillar of the eight-part plan involves “strengthening measures for QoS regulation through improved oversight internal controls and facilitation of active infrastructure sharing amongst telecoms operators in ways that will encourage seamless adoption of next-generation technologies and remove all barriers to smooth operations”, according to a press release put out by the commission in early 2016.
One way to tighten the state’s oversight of telecoms quality, according to a plan endorsed by ALTON and a wide range of other industry stakeholders in recent years, would be for the government to declare Nigeria’s communications networks “critical national infrastructure”, making it a criminal offence to vandalise telecoms sites and unlocking additional protections for the industry. This recategorising of the country’s telecoms infrastructure is expected to move forward in the near future under a draft Telecoms National Infrastructure Bill, which has been in front of the National Assembly since 2015. In particular, by declaring telecoms sites critical infrastructure, the government would free up military resources to protect telecoms installations in dangerous areas. “Quite a number of our base station sites, exchanges and other critical equipment were destroyed by insurgents in the north-east of Nigeria…It has remained increasingly difficult to restore services in those areas,” Adebayo told local media in February 2016.