NIGERIA’S UNIFIED LICENCING: THE T'S ARE GETTING CROSSED

Telecoms

The post - exclusivity period granted the four licenced GSM operators effectively ended last Tuesday, February 28, 2006 with the introduction of unified licences. Like the Chief Executive Officer of Mtel, one of the GSM operators said, at a stakeholders forum last Monday, the GSM revolution is over. According to him, while the privilege lasted, the members of the exclusive club made the best use of it.

Although the post-exclusivity is over, the unified licencing era has not really commenced. This now is the period or preparation and readiness. The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) was expected to publish the final copy of the framework on Wednesday last week.

But the gathering of Stakeholders on Monday, February 27 had one or two advice to offer the Commission. Whether the Commission would have enough time to consider such suggestions in detail before rolling out the final framework yesterday as promised is altogether another matter. But the Commission sure got some useful suggestions.

The CEO of Linkserve, Chief Chima Onyekwere told NCC that before the full take-off of the UL regime, the Commission should endeavour to set up an arbitration committee which should decide swiftly, disputes between feuding operators especially over interconnection. Ndukwe acknowledged the need for such a panel disclosing that NCC was indeed thinking in that direction.

"We are aiming at coming out with a stiff penalty so that a company that refuses to connect another operator would be forced to pay the operator he had refused to connect or disconnected all such revenues estimated to have been lost during the period in question.

This disclosure received a loud applause from the audience. It has a catch however. Those PTOs with the habit of owing would not go unpunished. In fact, as a first measure, companies with outstanding interconnect bills would not be allowed entry into unified licencing regime. This second disclosure did not receive as much applause as the first, probably because there were many debtor - PTOs in the house. But it was a position that was dear to MTN. According to that operator, just as there are penalties being prepared for operators who fail to connect others, there should also be penalities arranged for those who fail to meet up their obligations. What is good for the goose is also good for the gander. For MTN, anti-competitive behaviour included refusal to pay one's debts.

Other suggestions also came from the General Manager of VGC Communications, Gbenga Adebayo who presented the PTO's perspectives. His comments were targeted at fellow PTOs. Adebayo said co-location is one way out for operators. The look of the future is already taking shape. Little cash in possession of small operators would thin out as they try to compete on a national scale. So, it made sense for them to co-locate infrastructure. He also advised that operators should invest in the right equipment. They should also consider merger and acquisition, especially between small and medium scale operators as a way forward.

But the same old line of reasoning persisted, with the GSM operators on the one side and the PTOs on the other.For instance, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of ReltelWireless,  Vinoo Goyal was of the opinion that the entry fee is still a barrier. He was referring to the N260 Million any fixed operator wishing to do national mobible should pay. None of the GSM operators who spoke with THISDAY shared that view. As far as they could see, there is a great difference between $285 million and a 'mere' N260 Million the PTOs who want national mobility are being asked to pay.

Still on the same entry requirements, those who paid $285 million five years ago and who now want to do national fixed, according to the guidelines, are required to pay N44.6 million. The concerned operators are still asking, why should we pay anything at all?

NCC would side with the GSM operators concerning the N260 million the PTOs are required to pay. Ndukwe told the stakeholders that it was a fair amount. He said, "The entry fee established a level-playing ground for everybody." The Commission would however also support the position of the PTOs on the other issue. No one is supposed to get the fixed telephony licence for free.

For those looking for some of the things that may take place between now and the time UL would take off fully, a directive on the mandatory use of the interconnect clearninghouses may be it. Ndukwe gave that hint when he told operators that. While responding to a stakeholder who urged the Commission to make it mandatory for operators to interconnect through interconnect clearinghouses, he said, "we are very serious with the use of interconnect clearinghouses which we have licenced." He said at this stage of Nigeria's telecom development, the clearinghouses are necessary. If this is done, it would be one down for the GSM operators who have continued to treat clearinghouses with disdain.

It wasn't a smooth affair last Monday. When the Reltewireless MD said the entry fee should be lowered, Ndukwe asked if Reltel made a recommendation to that effect. The Reltel official said no. Ndukwe said everybody had the option of making an input when operators were asked to read the draft and make suggestions. Reltel did not utilize that opportunity. But other stakeholders point out that 14 days were too short to actually read the document, digest it and come up with any serious suggestion. So then there was the issue of whether the consultation process was detailed enough. That remains outstanding.

Many other things has become clear in the meantime. The first is that the post exclusivity would not be extended although the pioneer status enjoyed by the GSM companies continues unabated.

Second thing is that the unified licencing regime has become a fait acompli.

Third, NCC and no other person should bother himself about frequency management and whether there would be distortion to it or not. The Commission has the competence to deal wityh that. Momife had said in his presentation that the era of GSM has gone. However, the Vmobile Head of Regulatory Affairs, Mr. Snidjers would comment that there is no more spectrum for another GSM regulator unless Mtel wanted to give out its own. That may not be exactly right since in Lot 2 in the 1800 MHz band, the Commission still has 15MHz unallocated.

This Day