Nigeria’s telecom subscribers are being ripped off daily and the only organisation empowered to stop it, the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC) is set to allow that continue into the foreseeable future except something gives. The network operators are the ones regulating NCC. It is their puppet that jerks in whatever direction they pull the strings to.
NCC did not leave anyone in doubt that this is what is happening as it recently cemented its position as a collaborator with the network operators as opposed to that of a regulator that the public expect it to be. The shambolic outing at a forum couple of weeks ago in Lagos to explore the draft regulatory framework on Value Added Service (VAS) prepared by the NCC confirmed what has always been known by subscribers, the regulator answers to the operators it was meant to oversight.
What happened at the consultative forum, paradoxically organised by the NCC, was nothing short of the big telecom companies (telcos) giving the commission the middle finger and they were not remorseful about doing so openly for all Nigerians to see. Reduced to layman terms, the telcos are adamant in their resolve to continue holding Nigerians hostage with their exploitative offerings while at the same time holding back the growth of the industry and preventing its expansion to create jobs for Nigerians and revenue for the government.
At the core of what transpired at the consultative forum was the Value Added Service (VAS) which the draft regulations described as “…any telecom network-based service that offers more value than the ordinary voice conversation service, usually at a higher price than normal voice charges OR a service offered over the public voice or data network which by using computer-based processing allows the caller to access, download or modify information stored in remote locations.”
So all those information services and content such like news, updates, data, quiz, games, ringtones, video streaming, alerts, product information, call centre and database access etc. are what constitute VAS since these are not the functionalities that the telecom providers were originally licenced to serve. These services are currently unregulated and the draft framework is meant to provide regulation that includes licencing those that provide them, different from the telecom operators. The lack of regulation is of course responsible for those annoyingly irritating intrusion into one’s privacy and quiet moments by constant harassment from unsolicited SMS, robot call and offers for caller tunes. Those that have approached NCC to stop the bombardment from these services will understand the degree of helplessness the Commission currently faces since it does not have the framework in place to regulate them as it were.
It must be noted that all subsisting directives to bring the telecos to heel have only been minimally successful because as things stand the big companies are the accused, judge and jury. They will continue to exploit subscribers for as long as the current arrangement continues.
But if citizens and subscribers think unwanted services are irritating – and they are irritating to the extent that those currently shunting them to the public have no competence to deliver in ways that truly make them Value Added Services – the greater import of the telecos holding unto VAS should get every single person massing at the NCC national headquarters demanding that the right thing be done.
First, the jobs that were widely promised to come with growth in the sectors have been stolen or killed because the diversity that should come with different firms handling different components of VAS has not been allowed to blossom. The VAS value chain, as envisaged should include service and content developers, service hosting and service providers – the aggregators, as well as the network operators. Network operators at the moment hijacked the three tiers. Because they have a kind of monopoly of these services, which they should not be offering in the first place, they are also involved in what amounts to price fixing that allows them to charge exorbitantly. For instance, have you ever imagined that SMS are supposed to be free of charge (or part of the package for subscribing and paying to a particular telco); yet Nigerians were once paying N15 per SMS? How was it possible for the network operators to offer promos in which they can give 1000 free SMS and then go back to continue charging for the same service they should have offered for free? We don’t have to delve into the extortion by the banks in charging for every activity on customers’ accounts through sending frivolous and often unnecessary SMS.
Secondly, the owners of the content deployed on VAS platform, especially the intellectual property owners – musicians, comedians, authors and owners of various literary works, etc. are recklessly short-changed by the big telcos. Without a formally licensed aggregator or middleman, the telcos have become something akin to record label or movie producers/companies. They can decide to, for instance, offer any artiste a paltry percentage of the total profit derivable from his/her intellectual property. Since this segment of the business is not regulated or liberalised, it is a zero-some, winner-takes-all market space for the telcos. This stifles creative energy and has contributed immensely to the inability of the creative and entertainment industry to grow above sustenance level.
Thirdly, on the government (revenue) side, the network operators are engaged in systematic taxes evasion as they do not pay additional or commensurate taxes for the revenues derived from the activities of the other segments they have hijacked. The VAS platform is reported to be worth at least over N300billion yearly but there is no record of government making corresponding