• Monday, March 04, 2024
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13 ECOWAS states have amended telecom laws to waive roaming surcharges

13 ECOWAS states have amended telecom laws to waive roaming surcharges

Aliyu Yusuf Aboki is the Executive Secretary of the West Africa Telecommunications Regulators Assembly (WATRA). He speaks in this interview with BusinessDay’s Frank Eleanya on the state of connectivity in the Economic Council of West African States (ECOWAS) region. He highlights some of the progress made so far in achieving a uniform roaming tariff for all citizens within the West African sub-region and the role of Nigeria as the biggest economy.

OVERVIEW OF ALIYU

Aliyu is a versatile telecommunications engineer and policy maker. He has over 19 years’ experience strategy, planning, network optimization and design in the telecom industry. He started his career in telecommunications in the financial services sector in 2002 as a consultant responsible for data network design and maintenance. He moved to MTN Nigeria Communications Ltd, Lagos – Nigeria in 2003 as a Radio Frequency Planning and Optimisation Engineer. As he rose in MTN, his key responsibilities focused on high-level radio network planning and optimisation and analysis of MTN coverage and capacity network performance. In 2005, he moved to telecommunications equipment maker, Ericsson, working as a BSS-NPI Engineer in Jakarta, Indonesia. Aliyu later joined LM Ericsson Nigeria Ltd, Lagos – Nigeria as a

Senior Radio Consultant and Business Development Manager where he was responsible for

GSM/WCDMA network analysis, planning, tuning and optimization and radio network performance improvement services. from July 2008 to June 2010, he was the N&TC Business Dev. Manager overseeing Nigeria and Ghana. In this position, he developed scope, service description and pricing for N&TC services for all Ericsson’s customers in Nigeria & Ghana (Vodafone, Zain, MTN, Etisalat, TIGO). In July 2015, Aliyu rose to the position of Head of Planning & Optimization: MTN Nigeria Managed Services at LM Ericsson Nigeria, a position in which he over saw a team comprising over 120 Engineers/specialists/managers in Nigeria and India. He returned to MTN Nigeria Communications Ltd, Lagos – Nigeria in February, 2018 as Senior Manager and Head of RF Planning, a position in which he supported shareholder return by growing radio market share and data revenue and maximizing CAPEX returns management and net subscriber additions. Aliyu established B999 LIMITED, a telecommunications and telecommunications strategy consulting firm with operations in Lagos, Kaduna and the Federal Capital Territory in May 2019. He became the Executive Secretary of the West African Telecommunications Regulators’ Assembly (WATRA) in March, 2021. At WATRA, Aliyu has passionately worked to strengthen the role the organization plays in promoting policy and regulatory innovation and harmonisation, thus in accelerating West Africa’s socioeconomic development. Under his leadership, the WATRA Secretariat has accelerated capacity-building and collaboration with national regulatory agencies to accelerate broadband penetration and the expansion of universal access and service.

Tell us about WATRA’s effort to promote market-expanding regulation in the telecommunications sector in West African countries? What level of impact has the collaboration achieved?

Collaboration is working in the region but it can be better. Lately, we have had more active participation and collaboration from member countries in implementing the regional roaming regulation for instance. We have seen a higher level of interest amongst member states in participating in working groups on cybersecurity, consumer access and experience, and infrastructure development. We have seen greater commitment from the countries; increasingly the bigger countries are reaching out to smaller ones and sharing experiences and knowledge to help them develop their regulatory frameworks and general regulation within their economy. So yes, it has been very encouraging lately. Authorities in the region increasingly understand the importance of regulation in increasing investment in telecommunications and expanding the reach of services that boost economic productivity and create jobs.

What do you think are the bottlenecks to achieving WATRA’s key goals?

First, we have to appreciate the complexities involved. Take for instance the goal of having uniform roaming charges. We are dealing with sovereign nations with different jurisdictions and legislation. I think the participating countries need to adopt regulatory and legislative frameworks that will facilitate a uniform tariff. Most of the challenges we have right now have got to do with tariffs. For example, waiving the surcharges on international incoming traffic. While 13 member states have amended their telecoms laws to waive these charges, two are still in progress. This amendment of charges takes time. You will agree with me that the political dynamics in the West African region also contribute to the complexities. While roaming has not been fully implemented, so far 12 member countries of ECOWAS have commenced the implementation of the regulation. 25 out of the existing 44 operators in the region have declared compliance with one or more provisions. So, we are making steady progress. It’s been a bit tough but I think even Europe took some time to be where they are today. Southern Africa is also having the sort of challenges we are having in West Africa with achieving uniform roaming tariffs. But I find it very encouraging that member states more and more appreciate the work WATRA is doing to see that we adopt regulations that promote the affordability of telecom services and enable more and more of our citizens to be included in the digital economy.

What we are doing lately as WATRA is facilitating bilateral engagements between peering countries to see how they can sort out their issues. We keep on expanding like a spider web.

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Can you highlight some of the gains the region would enjoy as member states implement the goals of WATRA i.e. harmonise regulations regarding roaming tariffs for instance?

First, it would facilitate trade. This is very important if you look at the challenges our citizens are facing especially at our borders. There is a lot of cross-border trade facing immense challenges, especially with connectivity and data access. We also see data across boundaries as a big issue. It would help in ensuring that we take advantage of the ease that the regulation brings. If this gets implemented you would feel at home anywhere you are in the African sub-region. So, I believe it would boost trade and economic activities and in terms of the digital economy, it would open a lot of doors for more businesses to thrive, especially SMEs. When traders arrive in any country in West Africa, they can continue using their phones to do business- check prices, communicate with staff, suppliers, partners, etc- without bothering about higher costs.

Given the size and position of Nigeria in the African sub-region, does WATRA have a special programme that ensures that the country provides leadership for other countries?

Nigeria is already providing the leadership being one of the countries that removed the surcharge for incoming traffic much earlier. But there are challenges in broadband connectivity. If you take the Nigerian market, compared to other markets, it is way bigger. Some of the challenges we have seen are that most of the traffic that originates from these countries terminates in Nigeria. Nigeria has got some of the lowest call termination rates. It is a matter of now trying to get other countries to lower the termination rates whilst Nigeria tries to strike a balance. Recently, Nigeria organised a regional digital economy conference to bring the countries together. It was well attended, ideas were shared, challenges were discussed and opportunities were highlighted. It helped Nigeria also to learn and understand what the challenges are in other markets and find ways to overcome some of the obstacles it is faced with. You will agree that there have been efforts to reduce the Right of Way charges from an average of N4000 per linear metres to N145 per linear metre. The policy was established in 2017 but lately, some states have reduced the right of way charges to N145 and some have waived the fees completely. While there have been challenges in Nigeria, progress is being made. We have our headquarters here and hence we maintain close engagement with Nigerian regulators and keep encouraging and guiding them as far as regulation is concerned. Regulators and political authorities are beginning to understand that when levies, taxes, charges etc. on telecommunications are lower, we are enabling more citizens do more business, create more jobs etc. using telecommunications services.

We do hear announcements by the states on Right of Way charges reduction and waiver. But operators tell a different story about actual implementation. Do you think it is better that going forward states making such announcements should build a legal framework around these pronouncements to give them validity?

You need to recognise that we are running a federation in Nigeria. Hence states have got their autonomy. Under our current legislative and political framework, it is tricky to think of how to push states to adopt policies or laws. First, I think we need to go through the National Council of State, a body in which we have the states and the federal government coming together. That body could be a platform for exercising influence. We need to also create incentives for states that have gone ahead and adopted policies or regulations that help make telecommunications services affordable and thus help expand access to data and other services. Such states should enjoy some benefits for taking steps to expand the digital economy. We need this carrot-and-stick approach. The states need to see the “pioneer states” enjoying the benefits for them to want to be part of it. Cohesion will not work so much. From the political dynamics, we have to take an innovative approach to address the RoW problem.

But we have seen the National Executive Council mandate the reduction of RoW and nothing happened. Currently, operators are paying over 40 different taxes, what do you consider the best approach to getting these states to reduce the number of taxes? What are the low-hanging fruits to address the problem?

That is why I mentioned incentives are very crucial in getting states to reduce taxes. Take for example the recent bills and executive orders that the President has signed to devolve power generation to states; I think very serious states will take advantage of that and push to restructure their taxes and try to improve the condition of their citizens. By the time other states see what some of their peers are doing, I think they will wake up. A lot is really with the political will of the leadership of the states. I think it is important for citizens of the state to recognise that this is critical to their development and they would demand from their state assemblies which will, in turn, push the government to act. I think enlightenment is also crucial.

Investment in satellite broadband in West Africa. What is your view about using it to deepen internet connectivity, especially in rural areas?

I think satellite is a key technology to complement existing terrestrial networks to bring internet services within the reach of all citizens. With low earth orbiting satellites technology maturing, we expect better experience using satellite terminals. With Starlink for example, you don’t need your traditional satellite dish. All you need is a small receiver which you need to put somewhere outside. That in itself is an evolution in terms of how satellite technology works. We just hope that it eventually becomes cheaper. One of the challenges of Starlink is the cost – almost $43 per month subscription outside the $600 installation and hardware purchase. It is early days but I believe that gradually the cost will go down. With the economies of scale kicking in, the cost will come down. Also , with the intervention of the government, I believe that with time we would see this cost coming down. It is given that there is a limit to the extent that terrestrial networks can reach all subscribers. We need to take advantage of satellite and we have seen companies like Tizeti signing deals with Eutelsat. Their reach may not be as wide as Starlink but I think by the time we have these complementary technologies all together, we should bring the cost down. That is what is critical in the country. Technically Nigeria has almost about 100 percent coverage reach within the country but it is all about affordability. The government needs to play a role to improve the life of the citizens to be able to afford and purchase some of these services. At the same time, we also try to see how we can bring down the cost of the services apart from the cost of acquiring and installing the device.

How about creating a level playing field for all competitors, whether satellite providers or terrestrial providers, big players or small players?

That is where we have the authorities to ensure that they have got very adaptive regulations. The line between communications services providers and digital services providers is also getting blurred. So pretty much businesses and technologies are being converged. There is a lot that the regulatory bodies would need to do to ensure that the smaller players are not swallowed. I still believe that all the different players have got their niche to work on, you must ensure that the regulatory bodies remain vigilant and impartial. You must also ensure that the bigger players don’t have an unfair advantage.