Telecom industry needs special banks to fund infrastructure – Nnamani

Some of the identified problems affecting the growth of the telecoms sector have yet to be resolved. Do you have a new approach to solving them for more prompt results?

The problems listed have bedeviled the industry for some time but with the interventions we have been doing over the years, there has also been some progress in all the areas listed.

For instance, on the Right of Way challenges, a lot of progress has been made with the recent confirmation by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr Isa Pantami that several state governments have agreed to waive the RoW fees or reduce it to N145 per linear meter. That is progress which will ultimately lead to the rapid deployment of fibre transmission infrastructure across the country.

Some progress has also been made with respect to vandalism with the work done so far on classification of telecom and ICT infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure that will be protected. Progress has also been made in the area of multiple taxation.

Unfortunately, challenges still exist with power supply and foreign exchange, but we will continue to work on those. Some of these challenges can be addressed with more advocacy and interaction with the relevant government agencies; others, we may readjust some areas of our operations to overcome them.

For instance, in areas where vandalism cannot be totally prevented, putting in place a redundant network infrastructure so there is the availability of service at all times is the one way to go. This, however, requires funding. It is for this reason a major area the new exco of ATCON will be focused on is appropriate telecom and ICT industry financing.

We have already started the engagement with key government agencies on how the right mix of equity and debt financing can be made available to the telecom and ICT sector, including our request that part of the proposed infrastructure fund being put together by the Central Bank of Nigeria should be allocated to the telecom and ICT sector.

We have also called for the establishment of a special bank for the telecom and ICT industry similar to what we have in Bank of Industry and Bank of Agriculture.

What is your take on the Critical National Infrastructure bill that has been waiting to be passed into law for many years now?

We commend the effort that has been put into making the CNI a reality and truly appreciate the efforts of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy as well as the Nigerian Communications Commission in this regard. We believe the bill will be passed into law in the coming months.

According to a recent report by the National Bureau of Statistics, there are indications that there is a saturation of telecoms access in some parts of the country despite many other areas lacking access to the infrastructure.  How can we strike a balance in this area?

The reason for this is that some areas are not economically viable for the investment needed to provide service to those areas. What happens globally in situations like this is that the government steps in and supports the operators ready to offer services in locations that are not commercially viable. This can be in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and seed funding, among others.

The NCC under the USPF has some provisions to finance the establishment of telecommunications services in rural and underserved areas.

5G has been deployed in South Africa and other countries outside Africa, and NCC is developing a policy for 5G network. Do you see a need for this improved network technology in Nigeria?

5G has a lot of benefits.  Unfortunately, there was a lot of misconception on how the technology works and several people put out information about its safety that was not accurate.

This delayed the implementation plan in countries like that since the misconception needed to be dealt with. I believe the regulator is now ready to start the process towards licensing operators for 5G services in Nigeria and this is a welcome development.  5G will enable Internet of Things and that is the future of the digital economy.

What kind of synergy should exist between Over The Top platforms like Google, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and telecom operators in Nigeria in order to grow the industry?

There is a great synergy between the OTT platforms and telecom operators. The OTT service providers need the infrastructure of the telecom operators to reach the subscribers.

If you don’t have data service offered from the telecom operators you won’t be able to access the OTT services. What is needed is a proper partnership where the role and contribution of each of the players is properly analysed and proper compensation is given to each party for their role in delivering the services to subscribers.

It is when the synergy is not properly analysed and understood that you see what appears to be conflict between the two. We have encouraged the OTT players to come into our membership and we already have some of them in our fold.

 This way, ATCON can help to create the environment for proper interaction amongst all the entities and ensure subscribers get the best benefit from these services.

Do you support taxing their services or operations?

It depends on what is meant by taxing the service and what that represents.  Remember at the end, it is the subscribers that pay for all this. If the service is already taxed when subscribers pay for data to access the service, then adding a second layer of taxes would not be ideal.

However, if the OTT companies are registered in Nigeria, then like every other company, they will have to pay appropriate taxes to the government on their profits and other regulatory obligations. So, it may be better to encourage the OTT service providers to establish a presence in Nigeria than charge additional levy on subscribers who have already being taxed when the data is purchased from the operators to access the service.

What are the key agendas you are bringing on board as the new president of ATCON?

The new ATCON exco will address three main areas: strengthening the secretariat for more efficient service delivery; strengthening the membership for growth; and strengthening the telecom and ICT space for better service delivery to the subscribers.

We will modernise the operations of the secretariat to be in line with present-day realities for efficient and cost-effective operations. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that organisations should have structure for remote operations when it becomes impossible to work in a physical office location. We will be upgrading our secretariat infrastructure to ensure operations and meetings can happen remotely, including future AGMs if needed. We will also ensure the secretariat workers are well trained and equipped to be able to handle the changing and progressive nature of membership and the industry in general.

We will place a lot of emphasis on signing up new membership for the association and also ensure we have events and activities that promote the businesses of our members. We will engage with the various regulatory and government agencies both at the state and federal level to ensure our members’ needs are met and that there is enabling environment for the efficient and cost-effective delivery of telecoms and ICT services in the country. Our engagement will be firm but non-confrontational to ensure success. We will also encourage corroborations among our members so there is harmony in the industry and progress for all stakeholders. We will be introducing some new membership benefit packages to ensure our members get the best value for their involvement in the association.

Our engagement will ensure that new classes of services are introduced to the subscribers at affordable rates while not compromising on the quality of service

How do you intend to lead the new ATCON executive council and activities to help small telecom operators weather the storm and the big ones to do better?

We have always focused on creating a cordial environment where all the service providers, irrespective of their size, are able to meet and interact on the challenges facing the industry. Every year we organise several stakeholders engagement events where CEOs and top management of the various organisations meet to discuss and review industry pressing issues and how best to work together.

These meetings and interactions have helped bridge the gap between the smaller and bigger telecom operators and several joint projects have been initiated at these events. The industry is an ecosystem where we all need one another and partnership among service providers will continue to be promoted under the new exco.

Who are the stakeholders you intend to work with to further position ATCON as a key driver and shaper of telecoms narratives in the country?

We will work with all our members that cut across all sectors of the telecom and ICT space. We will also work with the various regulators and government agencies. The telecom and media houses have always been partners with ATCON in putting out accurate information on the happenings in the industry and we hope that will continue.

What are you promising subscribers in the next two years on behalf of other operators?

Better quality of service at a cheaper cost. New classes of service will also be introduced.