From Technology in a Wireless WSIS

Emmanuel.K. Bensah Jr. has 59 followers on Google Buzz

Thursday, July 24, 2008

When will the National Communications Authority stand up?

The NCA is an agency of the government with oversight to, in effect, regulate the telecommunications sector and implement terms of Ghana’s National Telecommunications Policy. According to the policy (2004) that can be downloaded from the Internet, while the Ministry of Communications is “responsible for the definition and elaboration of Government policy regarding telecommunications”, the NCA has a number of roles that it plays in implementing the policy, which include: “regulation of competition, including interconnection; tariff regulation consistent with Ministry policies; monitoring of operator activity, performance, and compliance”, and last but not least “consumer protection.”

Reading the policy itself is enlightening, for the policy sounds robust. There is a section on “Principles of Transparent regulation” that explains that NCA “shall promote public participation in and awareness of its activities and ensure that the public has adequate access to sector information.” Only last week, I checked to see whether the website of the NCA that is still under construction, and with some limited information about the sector, has managed to offer some new information. There is still nothing. Neither is there what there ought to be--as stipulated in the policy: an Annual Report in collaboration with the Ministry of Communication publishing “up-to-date industry information…” made available “for public review.”

Protection for Whom?
In what would prove to be an unprecedented move last year, the Authority not only threatened ONETOUCH and MTN to stop selling re-charge cards, but that they should also improve the quality of their service, otherwise huge fines would be slapped on them. This was a historic feat of epic proportions it appeared, for even with the psychedelic MTN plane then-still-perched at the Tetteh-Quarshie interchange and MTN flags virtually drowning any Ghanaian ones, the Authority barked. At the eleventh hour, the Authority yielded, allowing both mobile providers get away with only an agreement to improve their services.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t call that consumer protection.

Giving customer service a new life?
Then there is the recent case of Gateway Broadcasting Services (GBS) that entered the country in October last year. I do not know of anyone--and I know three official establishments around my workplace use GBS--that has been able to get through to GBS customer service. Beyond one who had given out his mobile number to subscribers (regrettably, he is no longer working for the company), no-one else can be contacted when one’s service is cut off -- either accidentally or not. When your payment has been made, the several landlines that have been given will forever put you through to a call centre operating outside Ghana in…Southern Africa, where, it stands to reason, there is a more clinical approach in dealing with you, given that the people are not in the country. As helpful and “nice” as they sound, nothing beats having Ghanaians help when I want my service re-connected , even if I have to have to lose my voice in doing so.

The anecdotes aside, such continuous practices remain an indictment of the NCA’s work. As a regulator of the telecommunications industry, it behoves it to ensure standard regulation--as stipulated in the policy. To wit: "all public telecommunications operators shall be required to establish service level agreements with their customers, which identify the minimum quality of service standards to which customers are entitled, and the remedies and compensation available when service falls below such standards."

Concrete steps
The biggest step to ensuring regulation, in my humble opinion, would seem to be a clear and necessary *adoption* of the National Telecommunications Policy as a working document for all in the first place! Another issue is of toll-free numbers. The other day, the sixth biggest bank called to inform me that they now have a toll-free number that operate 24/7. If banks can do it, why not our MDAs? And certainly, why not NCA? Just a small query: I noticed the toll-free number works on the ONETOUCH network for now. In the event of government passing through any privatisation of GT by way of a totally-unnecessary emergency bill, will Vodafone not seek to make profit by disbanding the toll-free nature that GT has a great interest in maintaining?

Nigeria’s NiTel to be Privatised…for Vodafone?
As if the attempt to privatize Ghana’s national provider Ghana Telecom is insufficient, British-based Vodafone is ready to hit the Nigerian market with the acquisition of ECOWAS neighbour Nigeria’s only landline provider. Rumours and accusations of the phone company being “beleaguered” and “inefficient” don’t wash with me. They are code-words for any excuse to privatize. An article in Nigeria’s *Punch” newspaper actually goes further arguing that: “…we can be certain about one thing: NITEL is currently bedeviled[sic] by multifaceted problems. These problems include malfunctioning lines, erratic billing system, poor customer satisfaction, infrastructural decay and a backlog of worker’s salaries…” It seems to me that chance would be a fine thing were NiTel to escape privatization.

NiTel Privatisation Not New
As far back as May 2002, then-President Obasanjo was planning a divestiture of the state-run phone company. It had been scheduled for March of that year, but had to be postponed for September 2002. It is interesting to note that still at that time, 51% was what was being offered to the so-called strategic investors!

On a more serious note, whereas the incumbent Ghanaian administration has put forth 70% of GT to be privatized, even the horror stories associated with NiTel have warranted 50% to Vodafone. Why such discrepancy one wonders? Is it that Ghana Telecom has more of these calamities at its doorstep than NiTel? Let’s examine them for a second. Last time I looked, GT was offering broadband4u (; dialup4u; ExZeed company which offers 24hour service to ONETOUCH subscribers, where MTN has not a 24-hr hotline, and Tigo’s is non-existent (exists only as a number); a mobile provider since 2000 (albeit itself bedeviled with astronomical prices when it started, with sim cards then going for around GHC150!); Ghana Telecom University; EasyFone (which enables landlines to be set up more easily than ever before).

According to the reports I’ve been reading, M-Tel, NiTel’s mobile operation that is a year younger than NiTel (having been established on October 2001), has only 176,000 subscribers. Compare that to MTN Nigeria that has 15,873,000 active lines. Switch to Ghana, and we find that where MTN Ghana is around 4 million subscribers, with ONETOUCH around 1.4m. That is subscribers over one million, yet Nigeria’s is able to attract only a fraction. Despite this, it is being sold for 50%!

Is it me, or is there something odd about the whole rationale of the GT purchase?

Still always about politics?
Then I think, and think some more, and remember how early last year, South Africa’s Standard Bank, operating under Stanbic Bank, was so keen to take over state-owned Agricultural Development Bank (ADB). One of its main motivations for the attempted sale (which incidentally, the government, according to financial papers two weeks ago have *de-prioritized*) was so that it could use the entry of Ghana as a gateway to penetrate the Nigerian market. A year ago today, Reuters reported that Standard Bank had bought a part of Nigeria’s IBTC Chartered Bank Plc, which expertise is in investment banking with 55 branches across Nigeria. Standard Bank spokeswoman Kim Howard would say that "If you are going to have a pan African strategy, you have to include Nigeria."

Looks like this time, they decided to strike Nigeria after an attempted one here in Ghana. Whether they will succeed remains moot. Whatever will happen with the sale of GT, it has become crystal-clear that the stage has certainly been set for a new revolution before our very eyes.

Forget the Industrial Revolution. We are all sitting at the cusp of a revolution that implicates a sector so critical to our lives we could never have imagined. To think that a consortium of former MTN executives are bidding—so the telecoms newsletter Balancing Act reports – for NiTel is not just a reflection of the motivation of big people with big capital, but where the next wars might be fought. Forget your Cold War. Prepare yourself for the Telecoms Wars.

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