Telecoms services worsen over interconnect debts

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Telecommunications services have gone poorer in the last few days owing to a partial disconnection of telephone lines largely due to increasing and unpaid interconnect debts.

It was learnt that an interconnect debt of over N165 billion among some stakeholders, including the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), clearing houses and Value Added Service (VAS) providers, is currently causing silent but serious frictions in the telecoms sector.

Findings by The Guardian showed that the debt rose from N20 billion in 2013 to N165 billion as at June 2018.

An interconnect debt is the one incurred by an operator for terminating calls on another network. Currently, statistics from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) showed that as at June, there were 174 million active subscribers, out of which MTN has 65 million; Globacom 46 million; Airtel 45 million; and 9Mobile 15 million.

It was learnt that as a result of the debt, it has become difficult for subscribers to connect Globacom network, especially from MTN and vice versa.

Globacom subscribers, who spoke to The Guardian, said the last four days have been very hectic getting calls through from the network, to especially MTN.

A Globacom subscriber, Oluwaseun Adekoya, said that for about two days, it had been difficult for him to connect to other networks. “What we hear is that ‘you cannot call this MTN line, contact your service provider’, or ‘unfortunately, this call cannot be completed at the moment, contact your service provider’.”

Another subscriber to the network, Chinedu Obaze, said: “When I tried to call an Airtel line, the line was just saying busy, busy, and busy. This happened all through the weekend.” When Obaze contacted Globacom’s customer care department, the officials said: “We are working on the challenges. Services will soon be restored.”

Tunji Oketunbi, an aviation expert, wrote on his Facebook page: “For one week now, I can’t make calls from Globacom to MTN lines. All calls to their Customer Service, three times now, have not effected any change. They don’t get back to you when you lodge any complaint. My colleague is also having the same issue. Telecoms companies appear to be uncontrollable in Nigeria.”

An MTN subscriber, Gbenga Tundun, said he experienced drop calls connecting to the Globacom, but “connecting to Airtel was fair from the same line.”

An insider source at MTN confirmed the development to The Guardian. She said the telecommunications firm had commenced partial disconnection of services on some of the other networks, especially those owing it interconnection debts.

She disclosed: “A particular network owes MTN over N7 billion in interconnection debts. We have written to the said operator, but it has remained unconcerned about the issue. We decided to write the NCC and we got the go ahead to disconnect. So some lines will experience difficulty.”

According to her, “while some Tier 2 operators have approached MTN for negotiation, this particular firm owing us over N7 billion has refused to say anything. We have called them for a meeting, but the operator didn’t bother to show up. The situation now is that they cannot terminate calls on MTN, but we can terminate calls on their networks. We do not owe any interconnect debt. The painful thing is that these monies have been collected ahead, because the telecoms market here is mostly pre-paid.”

It was learnt that some Tier 2 operators, owed Tier 1 service providers as much as N23 billion. Out of this, Globacom is also owed about N5 billion. IHS Nigeria, an infrastructure provider in the telecoms sector is being owed over N15 billion.

Confirming the impasse among the operators, the Director, Public Affairs of NCC, Dr. Henry Nkemadu, in a text message, said: “The NCC is aware of the situation, which is a fallout of interconnection debts owed MTN by Globacom, which have not been resolved.”

A source at Globacom, who did not want to be quoted, said: “We are already talking at the highest level on the matter. It will be resolved soonest.”

It was learnt that Globacom has paid N2.5billion to MTN as part of the interconnect debt owed the company.

The Guardian had reported on December 19, 2018 that in about six months, about 35 million subscribers might be disconnected over N180 billion interconnect debt causing frictions among the mobile network operators.

The story was hinged on an NCC document sighted, where notification letters were sent to affected operators. The NCC had asked MTN, Airtel and IHS to disconnect, on a partial basis, services to Globacom, Ntel (MNOs) and interconnect exchange points, including Breeze, Exchange, Solid, Medallion and Niconnx.

On the rising interconnect debt, the President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, said the sustainability of any industry was always factored into the amount of debt and leverage that is at risk of not being paid.

“This is especially true when you consider that 98 per cent of telecoms services are prepaid by the consumers, and since services have already been paid for before they are delivered, it makes perfect sense that interconnects and tower rental costs must have already been collected by the operators owing the debt.

“Unfortunately, the industry has recorded a new high level of unpaid debt which has accumulated over the years. In the past, disconnecting operators eventually ended up in the closure of those businesses. The Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) collapse was a case that is very much evident,” Teniola said.

The ATCON boss, who urged the affected subscribers to use the Mobile Number Portability scheme and port to available network, urged NCC to introduce an automated clearing interconnect scheme as suggested by the association this year.

According to him, the current and future debts may have to be written off if those companies disconnected will not eventually go into forced bankruptcy.

In a statement on the lingering crisis among the MNOs, the NCC reassured the over 174 million telecoms subscribers of their protection from any service disruption as a result of the ongoing regulatory intervention towards resolving the rising interconnectivity debts issue.

The commission also urged debtor operators to settle interconnect debts owed their creditor networks without further delay to prevent possible revenue drop and customer flight to competitors.

In the statement, the NCC Executive Vice Chairman, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said, as a consumer-centric telecoms regulatory authority, the commission was keen on ensuring that the consumers continue to enjoy uninterrupted service while efforts are being made to address the issue of indebtedness in the industry.

According to him, the issue of interconnection is being handled delicately within the purview of the regulatory provisions to protect consumers by ensuring that their quality of experience (QoE) is not acutely affected.

Danbatta said that while regulatory approval for disconnection was granted to the creditor networks late last year, as a last resort towards resolving the huge interconnection debts threatening the health and sustainability of the industry, the commission would ensure that no telecoms subscriber is disconnected.

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