Aboubakar Zourmba, who is the Deputy Director General, Telecommunications Regulatory Board in the Republic of Cameroon spoke to Olubayo Abiodun and Monique Butt in Doha, Qatar on a number of issues that defines the regulatory platform and the relationship with operators and consumers in Cameroon vis-a-vis service delivery
Africa Telecom and IT: What is the relationship between the regulator and the operator and how you are dealing with the dynamics?
Aboubakar Zourmba: The relationship between the operator and regulator. I am from ART, the telecommunications regulatory board. The relationship is the normal relationship. The state has given different types of licenses to operators. We as regulator we are in-charge of following up the implementation of the provisions of the different licenses given to the operators. That is one thing; the second thing is that we are in charge of giving them the scarce resources that permits them to lay out the network. These scarce resources are like the radio frequency, the telephone numbering plans and such kinds of things in telecommunications resources. So these are really the two key relations that we have with the operators. With the consumers, it is mainly the protection of consumers in two senses. One is the control of quality of service and the second one is the control of prices or tariff. On fixed tariff we can ensure that it is appropriate to the charges of the operators. Lastly, which is important we try to solve conflicts among operators like the interconnection conflicts according to the rules of the radio frequency and different harmful interferences on such kinds of things.
AT&IT: Termination issue has always been a key concern among operators because of the difficulties in harmonising the different standards and reconciling traffic figures on both ends. How do you manage this as a regulator because it is a major issue?
AZ: We pre-negotiate what is called interconnection fee. That is the fee to terminate calls with each operator. We pulse it at the beginning of each year and pulse for the coming year and the interconnection fee. We also assess the market in order to know what the interconnection make cost and we agree to a certain figure for each operator and for the other operator because they are not uniform for all the operators. It depends on the importance of the operator and the layout of the coverage throughout the country. So that is what we do; we negotiate. For the international incoming operator it is also included in the negotiation and to ensure that the operators are really telling us the truth, we are planning to carry out a project with some international consultants for a BoT project so that they can put devices so that that can control and we can confront the data collected from the system from the consultant and the data given by the operators; just to see whether they are cheating or not.
AT&IT: In some other jurisdictions, the regulators have adopted the single interconnect exchange point. Is Cameroon considering this too as an option?
AZ: It is a good idea but we have not yet thought of that in Cameroon. Maybe within our planned BoT project for controlling the international incoming calls, may be that can come up. But so far we have not thought of that. So far, we have bilateral interconnection agreement among operators in Cameroon.
AT&IT: Tariff is usually a contentious issue in most jurisdictions in developing economies. How well are the consumers dealing with the tariff practices in Cameroon?
AZ: To tell you frankly, the consumers are complaining that the tariff are high and when we tried to explain to them that there is a linkage between cost and price and profit (benefit) margin, some thought that we are colluding with the operator to cheat them. They are complaining that the tariff are high in Cameroon as compared to other countries, however, we are coping with that.
AT&IT: So how are you able to tackle the allegation of compromise between the regulator and the operator being levelled by the consumers?
AZ: We tried to deal with that allegation just by sensitising and being transparent and opening up when we are negotiating with the operators. It is not a closed negotiation, it is open. When we set up the case, it is open, the interconnection details are made public. The details are published on our website and even in the newspapers and it is up to everybody to access and criticise the details of the interconnection provisions following the negotiation. I thought we are coping because we have some peculiarities; we have some constraints in the licences. For example when they compare Cameroun with Nigeria , Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and some other countries that they believe we are on same level and that they are better than us, we tell them we have our constraints in the licenses. We say for example that the operator should cover 90 per cent of the territory not the population. We are concerned with the coverage of the area and some of the time there is no existing transmission links to these places or if they are installing wireless transmission links with radio stations, relay stations they have to feel these tanks with fuel and they have to have some watchmen and things like that. They believe that we impose that. The other thing is the problem of energy. We don’t have energy all over the place and we oblige them to cover and come over to these places. So they have to provide the power themselves with generators or solar energy or so. So these things make tariff to be a little bit higher than in those countries like Nigeria, Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire. So that is how we tried to explain to them and sensitise them and we are sure that we are not having some harmful compromises with operators.
AT&IT: How do you deal with the problems of Quality of Service which pretty much could emanate from some of the issues that you have just highlighted?
AZ: Quality of service; there are two types or three types. One is the administrative quality of service. That is how people are welcome at the premises of the operators. The other one is about financing, that is the bill is okay; the contracts of the subscribers are OK and the last one is technical quality of service and with that we have technical parameters set in the license. What we do is to go and verify what is in the license and we verify it with the operator. We don’t go without the knowledge of the operators. We alert them that on a set date for one month we will be with you to verify the compliance with the parameters in your license. We agree on the areas and we agree on the tools we have to use. We have our own tools the quality of service control equipment and they have their own tools too and we can use both. So that we can agree and say that this one you have to have here -92dbm for example – the level of the signal. But it is not good to have – 10 more and the quality of service is going to affect some more like that.
AT&IT: Do you have a regime of sanctions to deal with infractions on the licence provisions like the KPIs?
AZ: Yes, we have. If they don’t meet up with the KPIs we give sanctions. The sanctions can be pecuniary or temporary suspension of the license or we withdraw the licence. We have not gone as far as withdrawing the license which is the platform for the population to have the service and things like that. But pecuniary, yes, we have some sanctions and suspensions for three months or things like that.
AT&IT: How effective have the sanctions been in redressing the issues for which the sanctions were imposed in the first place?
AZ: To some extent yes. They weigh the amount of the sanction if it is pecuniary, they prefer to pay if it is very low instead complying with the sanction and we came up with this. We said that you have to pay this amount for the sanction and we also want you to take 30 per cent of that to ameliorate the quality of service under our control and supervision. So we have somebody who has the expertise to go and assess their levels of compliance with the demand. But we were told by the government that we don’t have a right to do that to convert sanctions into investments to ameliorate the networks because the sanction is not only when we are giving pecuniary sanctions and it is not only for ART it is also for the government. There is a whitepaper saying that money realised from the sanctions certain percentage goes to the state treasury and spread out like that. So they say if you want to convert fine if it is for you. But it is not for you. And we have stop converting so they pay and it goes to the treasury.
AT&IT: Have you had instances when the operators too complained that the sanctions have also constrained their capacity to quickly resolve the QoS challenges because the money that they ought to use for dealing with the challenge have been paid out as penalty?
AZ: That is why we concur with them that we should convert. Instead of taking that money they can still use that money under our control. But generally not under the control of ART but we commission an expert so that they can invest under the control of that external expertise to do the job. But government harped on us that it was not fair. And we stopped it.
AT&IT: Everyone is talking Big Data, Cloud, Social and Mobile. So the road ahead is broadband. Where is Cameroon in all of these?
AZ: Broadband, we have our plan in 2005. We are in the process of modifying that plan. We call it Sectorial Strategic Plan. We have the telecommunications strategic plan for the country. And what we call broadband we consider you a broadband subscriber when you have access of 128kbps. ITU advised 256kbps but we are still on our broadband of 2005 which is on 128kbps. And that we have laid some optical fibre.
AT&IT: Who laid the fibre? Is it operators or government?
AZ: It was laid by government – the 50 kilometres so far.
AT&IT: So, what are the operators doing in this regard?
AZ: They pay to have access to this government infrastructure.
AT&IT: Did you put the infrastructure in place to avoid the challenges with right of way issues and fast-track a single build out that all the operators can plug into?
AZ: Some international operators who will like to lay out fibre, particularly the optical fibre in the rural areas and none of them agreed to lay out fibre in the rural areas. They say that they will prefer to do the fibre optical rings in Duala and Yaoundé. And that is not the regulator’s issue it is the government policy. They have not yet settled that. And what we are doing is for the state to lay down 6000 trunks between cities and 2000 trunks within cities.
AT&IT: Are all the cities across the country now covered?
AZ: So far two cities: Douala and Yaoundé.
AT&IT: What is the master plan for the entire country – for example in the next five or ten years?
AZ: Well I don’t have the data off hand but the 2005 master plan talked about 20,000 kilometres of fibre right across the country. Well, there are some parts of the country that you cannot lay fibre. You can only use radio because of the difficult terrain.
AT&IT: Do you have a specific plan for rural broadband deployment?
AZ: We have a specific plan for specific rural access and not specifically as broadband.
AT&IT: Do you have any room for private investments not necessarily from the already licensed telcos but for those who may have dedicated plans to participate in the rollout of broadband infrastructure across the country to do PPP with the government for instance and take away some of the burden of finance for instance and extend broadband to the rural communities?
AZ: According to the law of 2005, that is possible because the law says that we can have what we call a transport licence. The law says that okay we can have one or more transport companies. It is for the government to implement because the law is there.
AT&IT: The government intervened trying to build a broadband infrastructure. But the worry is of the operators limiting their investments to the urban cities. Why did government intervention not focussed on bridging the digital divide between the rural and urban by taking its broadband investments to the rural communities while the private operators take up the urban centres?
AZ: The principle is that we have development and Universal service Access Fund. And the four mobile and one fixed operators which have specific licenses they pay to a fund of development and universal access service three per cent of their turn over and that is with the government and that is actually to fund exactly what you are saying. So that operators are excited with subsidies to layout infrastructure for the rural areas. For now that is the strategy and that is the 2005 master plan and it contains the Development and Universal Service Access Fund. It is called FST (Funds special de Telecommunications) – Special Telecommunications Fund by the development and universal service. And what we call development here is actually the education. Providing telecoms access to the communities and quarters it may not be only in the rural areas. There are some quarters even in the urban areas which the operators decline to give access to because they are not considered good enough. And we have that fund even for that and when I say that 2000 kilometres for the urban fibre optical ring it is done from that fund because we know that you cannot provide some access in the rural areas and in the urban there is no interconnection and that is why we start because the government has not yet decided either it is one transport company or many transport company.
AT&IT: Talking about capacity building, which you alluded to, how many of the schools in the primary and secondary segments have been connected and what levels of access do they have?
AZ: We don’t have integrated project. We have higher education project connecting universities. We have some projects for secondary schools and things like that, particularly technical schools. Primary schools are not really yet targeted at this time and we have specific universities and higher education institutions where this fund tries to build up some labs in the specific institutions.happy wheels