Why is the collocation arrangement failing to deliver on robust Quality of Service in telecoms operations for the Nigerian market? Why are the Telcos and TowerCos fretful of open and transparency engagements? Olubayo Abiodun brings you details of the roundtable where the issues were analysed.
STAKEHOLDERS have said that the infrastructure sharing model in Nigeria’s telecom market is deficient to the growing need of the telecoms operations in the country. This position was stated at the roundtable discussion by the Nigeria Coalition of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) on Monday, 4th July at the Intercontinental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, Nigeria.
The roundtable which comprised of Uche Osuji (MTN), Shola Adeyemi (Bharti Airtel), Tobe Okigbo (Smile Communications Limited), Funke Opkeke (MainOne), Oyetola Teniola (ATCON) and Shola Sanni (GSMA) with Kojo Boakye, A4AI Deputy Director as the moderator, surmised that the acquisition of the towers by management companies has not met the expectations of the service providers. The forum also included the Director Public affairs, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Tony Ojobo who represented the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Umar Garba Danbatta.
While the parties agreed that the current policy on passive infrastructure sharing is grossly inadequate, but more worrisome to them is the total lack of direction in the fibre infrastructure sharing because of the absence of a definite policy to guide its operations.
Speaking specifically during the third session for the day with the theme: “Service Providers Roundtable: Gaps and challenges to implement Infrastructure Sharing,” `the erstwhile EVC NCC, Ernest Ndukwe said that there might be a need for the regulation of the tower companies in order to consolidate the original objectives of the collocation policy.
He expressed concern on whether the tower companies have added value beyond the mere acquisitions of the masts originally built by the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) for their individual operations. The former EVC also wanted to know if the tower companies were actually building towers with collocation capabilities. Besides calling for cooperation among all government agencies to ensure harmonisation of policies that affect the operations of tower companies, he said the incentive requirements of the tower companies must be clearly understood.
During separate interventions, Osuji, Adeyemi and Okigbo called for a stakeholder review of the current policy on collocation. While they all agreed that Nigeria is not in short supply of regulation and policy in the telecoms industry, they faulted the process of implementation and also demanded additional inputs from the MNOs in order to have a clear cut model for cooperation such that discrete business plans of the individual companies are not compromised.
All the stakeholders admitted that there is dearth of tower infrastructure in Nigeria. This was particularly underscored with the statistical attributes of what is prevalent in the United Kingdom which has a total of 55, 000 tower masts serving its 55 million population. But when juxtaposed with the data for Nigeria where about 25, 396 tower infrastructure have been deployed for a population of 177 million population, it was concluded that Nigeria currently has a shortfall of 50, 000 towers to enhance mobile penetration which is still witnessing unprecedented growth across the national climes.
It was also agreed that the tower consolidation that was achieved with the transfer of management from individual operators to holding companies such as IHS, HTN Towers, Helios Towers, Anchor Towers and VDT may not have produced the desired results. The position of the industry stakeholders was that the acquired towers have not been properly integrated to maximise infrastructure sharing.
But with the takeover of the towers by management companies for collocation, the stakeholders said that this has also created its own challenge on capacities for multi-operator rent on a single tower. Okigbo said that the need to accentuate the power requirement for multi-operator connectivity would also compel a renegotiation with the landlords with its attendant extra financial and technical burden. Besides, he expressed doubts about the capacity of the towers to serve the need of multi-operators since they were initially built for a single operator.
This position was also underscored by the CEO of MainOne Cables, Funke Opeke who spoke on the need to restructure and redefine the processes of infrastructure sharing via a new policy on multi-tenancy arrangement. In order to put less pressure on the MNOs, she said that the tower management companies have critical roles to play in stabilising Quality of Service (QoS) delivery by ensuring constant maintenance and upgrading of the infrastructure. While Osuji of MTN Nigeria and Adeyemi of Bharti Airtel Nigeria concurred that passive infrastructure sharing had recorded a modest 70 per cent uptake, Okigbo of Smile Communications said that while the legacy companies could leverage their pioneer status in the deployment of facilities, late joiners in the business like Smile Communications were faced with additional burden of financial commitment to build certain infrastructure from the scratch.
Ojobo who spoke for the EVC NCC, had observed that “In spite of the NCA 2003, Guidelines and Regulations, and other sundry measures taken by the Commission to address some noticeable problems, there are still a lot of obstacles, most of them man-made, hindering the operators from rendering needed but effective services.”
He said that the escalating operating expenditure (OPEX) in the industry influenced the Commission to issue Guidelines on Collocation and
Infrastructure (C/IF) Sharing in 2006. “The Act empowers us to do this.
The primary object of these Guidelines is to establish a framework within which operators can negotiate C/IF arrangements, and for that purpose, specifically to:
a. Ensure that the incidence of unnecessary duplication of infrastructure is minimized or completely eliminated;
b. Protect the environment by reducing the proliferation of infrastructure and facilities installations;
c. Promote fair competition through equal access being granted to the installations and facilities of operators on mutually agreed terms;
d. Ensure that the economic advantages derivable from the sharing of facilities are harnessed for the overall benefit of all telecommunications stakeholders;
e. Minimize capital expenditure on supporting infrastructures and to free more funds for investment in core network equipment; and
f. Encourage operators to pursue a cost-oriented policy with the added effect of a reduction in the tariffs chargeable to consumers.
According to him, under the Guidelines, the NCC shall encourage and promote the sharing of the following infrastructures: Rights of way, Masts, Poles, Antenna Mast and tower structures, Ducts, Trenches, Spaces in buildings, and Electric power (public or private source).
But if the NCC has laid a profound framework for infrastructure sharing, Shola Sanni of GSMA demanded to know government’s commitment on incentivising infrastructure sharing. She raised a poser on the incentives that the operators get in order to encourage them to share their investments being turned up for sharing. The GSMA Country representative was also disturbed by the poor utilisation of the Universal Service Funds (USF) otherwise called Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) in Nigeria. According to her, less than ninety per cent of the multi-million Dollars accrued for inclusive services in the underserved and unserved areas on the continent have been left fallow.
Ojobo, and Ndukwe, expressed deep concern on the apathy of the telcos in accessing the USPF funds. Ojobo was particularly worried that even in instances when the USPF provided incentives of almost 100 per cent, the operators still shy away from deploying services to the unserved and underserved areas. He said that the NCC is interested in collaborating with the operators in order to understand their challenges, and come up with the desired solutions for making the utilisation of the USPF efficient and effective. Ojobo requested the operators to outline the industry position so that issues and areas of concern can be harmonised in the management of the funds.
But while calling for an innovative approach for dealing with the industry apathy to the USPF facilities, Ndukwe said that in some other jurisdictions, like Malaysia, the fund is ploughed back to the operators who deploy the facilities for inclusive service provisions in the unserved and underserved communities on the operator terms. The current practice in Nigeria is the utilisation of the funds for unserved and underserved areas on the terms of the telecom regulator.
President ATCON, figured out that the USPF had been more of a disincentive to operators because incentives were ‘back-ended’ and not ‘front-ended’. But when he made a sweeping statement that the regulator’s competence to oversee the emerging technologies in the new frontiers of digital mobile evolution was doubtful, Ojobo retorted that Teniola might have been ill advised to have made such unsavoury comment about the NCC. According to him, NCC is one of the frontline agencies in Nigeria that is committed to the regular training and exposure of its workforce to training opportunities globally and within the country.
Ojobo also debunked Teniola’s allegation that NCC does not have Research and Development (R&D) in its management make up. While saying that the R&D department at NCC was more than five years old, he assured that the Danbatta Umar led regime is determined to revitalise the R&D department in order to bring it up to speed on the trending issues in the ICT ecosphere.