Subscribers Decry Poor Service Delivery By Telecom Operators

ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, in this report, tries to find out why several investments by operators in the telecommunications industry, especially on facilities upgrades, infrastructure roll-out, among others, appear not to be having significant impact on their quality of service. 

FROM the number of dropped calls, aborted short message service (SMS), to countless number of futile attempts to make calls, it appears that the telecommunications operators have conspired to inflict untold pains on over 145 million active GSM subscribers in Nigeria.

From Lagos, to Abuja, Ondo to Port Harcourt, Jos to Enugu, Borno to Sokoto, the profile of the quality of service, especially from the GSM operators, the service by MTN Nigeria, Globacom, Airtel and Etisalat leaves much to be desired.

While subscribers piled up complaints over these lingering failures, watchers of the unfolding development in the telecommunications industry wondered why, in spite, of repeated sanctions by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), incidence of poor service is still recurring in the industry, 13 years after the telecoms revolution in the country. This is even as the operators claimed not to have stopped their almost yearly investments on network rollouts and facilities upgrades in the country.

Level of investments
Investigations revealed that Nigerian telecommunications sector had since witnessed combined injection of about $10.35 billion investments, deployed specifically on service rollouts and infrastructure upgrades to boost services in the last five years. But it appears that these investments have made little or no impact on the quality of service for customer satisfaction.

Specifically, since the launch in 2010, Airtel says it has invested over $1.7 billion to expand network capacity to deepen quality in Nigeria, in a bid to achieve world-class service quality. Between 2012 and 2014, Globacom also made some major investments.

Globacom signed a $500 million deal with Chinese equipment vendor, ZTE, in 2013, to upgrade its infrastructure nationwide for efficient service delivery. It also signed another $750 million (N116.25 billion) agreement with Huawei Technologies, a leading global ICT solutions provider, to expand the capacity of the Glo network, to bring the total value of the facilities upgrade contract penned by Glo to $1.25 billion within two years.

In August 2014, Etisalat claimed to have invested about $300 million on network roll out, beside the $300 million it planned to spend between 2014 and 2015 financial year.
MTN, the largest telecommunications operators in Nigeria, by market share and subscription, claimed to be investing as much as $1.5 billion on infrastructure upgrade in Nigeria, almost on a yearly basis in the last five years.
Explaining the regime of poor quality in service, General Manager, Corporate Affairs, MTN Nigeria, Funmilayo Onajide, said the fundamental reason for ongoing challenges with quality of service is largely due to capacity constraints in the telecoms industry.
“MTN Nigeria has continued to invest very aggressively (approximately $1.5 billion year on year) in order to increase capacity, but demand continues to outstrip supply. The increasing demand for telecommunications services has been driven by the sharp decline in tariffs over the last three years, stimulating increasing minutes of usage and activity on the networks by a growing number of people,” she said

Consumer Manager, Airtel, Ibe Nwandu, said the telecommunications firm will not stop at ensuring that services on its network improve to satisfy its teeming customers.

On the increasing unsolicited messages, Nwandu, at a consumer forum, said Airtel had established an anti-spam network with which customers can restrict surge of the menace.

Authoritative sources at Globacom attributed the poor service by service providers to incessant breakdown of base stations as a result of power failure orchestrated by theft of components, damage or failure of optic fibre as a result of construction works in every parts of the country and increase in phone calls that are beyond the capacity of the existing base stations.

“ Poor service that subscribers are experiencing now is as a result of breakdown of base stations. There is always power failure resulting from theft of generator components. There is also the problem of congestion at the stations and damage to our optic fibre because of on going construction works all over the country. It takes time to fix all these problems because we always have issues with area boys and villagers during attempt to get them fixed. Calls are increasing every day and the base stations are not enough for the increasing calls. So we need more base stations. Government should help us with locations for base stations for us to improve the quality of service. There is need to solve the problem of multiple taxation also, because if we want to build a base station now, all tiers of government will come to collect tax.”

Subscribers’ lamentationsSubscribers have blamed the regulator, NCC for the challenges they are facing in getting benefit for their money. They accuse the regulatory body of regulatory failure

A Lagos based Medical Doctor, Tosin Olaitan, a Globacom subscriber, complained that he had been experiencing drop calls and undelivered SMS in the last one month. He wondered if the NCC still monitors operations of the operators.

According to him drop calls; uncompleted calls; illegal credit deductions and menace of unsolicited Short Message Service (SMS) have become the order of the day with the networks.

Another subscriber, Mary Adio, a business woman, and ‘MTN loyal customer’ also complained of drop calls and connection failures, lamenting her clients now find it extremely difficult to reach her for business transactions .

On why she did not explore the Mobile Number Portability (MNP) initiative to jilt MTN for other networks, she said, “which of the network do you think is better? None of them! Some of us are just MTN loyalist. We pray that their investment will impact on the networks.”

Lamenting the ordeal of poor quality of service, a banker with one of the new generation banks, Kayode Bankole, described the present service quality as a shame, going by the largeness of the Nigerian market.

He urged the NCC to be more aggressive in its oversight functions of the industry, as “over 100 million subscribers in Nigeria are not getting quality for the money they are paying.”

Also, a Barrister, Ken Okechukwu, who claimed to be frustrated by the increasing drop calls threatened to sue both NCC and the telecoms operators.

“I don’t know why we keep paying for services we don’t get. To put a call through, even when the mobile phones are beside each other, you will still hear that the call is not reachable…. I mean, what are we paying for?, he queried.

How power challenges affect operations
Investigations revealed that for services to improve, beyond other industry challenges, stable power supply is very critical. As at December 2014, operators had deployed 30,176 Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) across the country, which analysts believed are still too small for the country that has surpassed the 100 per cent teledensity mark.

While operators power their BTS with over 50, 000 generating sets, the country, according to the NCC, requires about 80,000 BTS for efficient service and to meet the growing telecommunications service demands.

According to the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), in a document signed by its Chairman, Gbenga Adebayo, operators power their BTS spread across the country with about 50, 000 generators.

The Guardian checks showed that the operators now expend about N214.3 billion yearly on diesel to keep the generating sets running.

A top official of one of the telecommunications service companies, who preferred anonymity, told The Guardian that consumption of diesel by an operator’s generating sets depend on the size and age.

According to him, a direct operator, like MTN, Globacom and others use a 15-20KVA generating set, while those on colocation run a 27KVA set, which are changed sometimes every two years, depending on wear and tear forces.

On the average, he said a generating set consumes three litres of diesel per hour, 72 litres per day and about 2, 232 litres in a month. So, going by the current price of diesel, which varies between N140 and N160, because of the deregulation, it means that an operator is spending about N357, 120 monthly and about N4, 285, 440 yearly.

Effects of promos
While power challenges continue promotional activities have become the latest advert tool by telecommunication companies to secure customers’ attention. The promos are aimed at getting new customers and retaining old subscribers.

The competition in the telecoms industry is becoming stiff, as they continued to lure consumers with different promos in order to out-do one another. These promos are quite amazing: for the new mobile users, it is real deal. But for the first generation of GSM users, they feel cheated. Some of these promos would have sounded impossible eight years ago. Today, promos have channelled more customers to the networks and increased subscriptions without adequate preparations for the surge.

Already, the NCC had lamented that the increasing growth in subscriptions was actually affecting service quality because of lack of capacity on the part of the operators to take care of them.

According to an Airtel subscriber, Mrs. Shola Erakpotobor, “I bought my Econet SIM card for N50, 000 and I was spending N35 per minute on every call I made. There was no consideration for intra-network calls. I never knew a day would come when the same SIM card would be sold for N200 and that one would call for as low as 11K per seconds.”

Fall in ARPU and operators’ lamentations
Adebayo, an engineer, who is optimistic that there would be improvements in service quality soonest, lamented that the increasing challenges the operators are facing in the country, especially the high operating expenditure profile, has also affected the sector’s Average Revenue Per User (ARPU).

According to him, ARPU have consistently declined from year to year, stressing that between 2001 and 2012, telecommunications sector ARPUs declined by over 87.5 per cent, “and subsequently, some operators have reported a further ARPU depreciation of over 13 per cent from year to year.”

ARPU is a measure used primarily by consumer communications and networking companies, defined as the total revenue divided by the number of subscribers.

Adebayo stressed that inadequate power supply and insecurity; vandalisation; multiple taxation and regulation among others have impacted seriously on the fortunes of the industry.

Lending his voice to the power challenge facing operators and the economy as a whole, the President of the Association of Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ATCON), Lanre Ajayi, said power has become a huge cost element on the operators, stressing that it has become a huge burden.

Ajayi, also an engineer, noted that if power improves, service quality will be impacted greatly and there would be further reduction in telecoms service and products tariffs.

He urged the Federal Government to fasttrack various policies, including the privatisation aimed at turning the economy around. He lamented that privatisation of the power sector was yet to impact on individuals and the economy as a whole, stressing that their was need to plug loopholes confronting the process

Speaking further on the sector’s challenges, Onajide said: “the sector’s challenges are exacerbated by underlying environmental challenges, which have largely remained unresolved in spite of best efforts by the industry and the relevant critical stakeholders.

“ Some of the challenges are power, vandalism and theft of network infrastructure; insecurity in certain parts of the country, multiple taxation and over regulation, leading to interference with critical network infrastructure by unauthorised persons and disruption to services,” he said.

Although, the new Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umaru Danbatta, who resumed office last week promised to tackle the challenge of poor quality service headlong, the commission’s Director of Public Affairs, Tony Ojobo, had attributed poor quality service to capacity constraints on the part of the service providers.

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