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Politics, reality of telephone subscriber registration in emerging markets

By Titi Omo-Ettu
For those who live in the developed economies, mobile telephony has surpassed its raison d’etre of exchange of information between peoples and seamlessly moved into the socio-political realm of politics and consumption.

The unrest following the Iranian presidential elections of 12 June (whaoh! June 12 again!) the leading question in media and academic circles is ‘Is Twitter driving the ongoing political crisis in Iran?’ A premature question it seems but the reality is that there is a developing consensus on the centrality of the new medium – Twitter (to a lesser extent, Facebook and YouTube) and the challenge it poses to more established media as an effective means of disseminating information.

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Just last week our contacts reliably informed us of the U-turn by South Africa’s mobile operators who have now accepted to implement the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act, a.k.a. RICA. In a display of corporate muscle by the industry against an ever-shrinking role of the state, mobile operators had met RICA with derision so much so that when it became law, the big players – MTN, Vodacom and Cell C – branded it an intervention too far.

Even President Thabo Mbeki was unsure of the practicalities of implementation when in 2005 he shrugged while signing RICA into law. However four years down the road, they have now fallen in line saying they would implement it especially as a lot of fine-tuning (some may say watering down) has been done to its original requirements.

This U-turn exemplifies a realignment in the balance of power between corporations and government/legislatures where the former often has a vice-like grip over the latter thus aligning with each other against the consumer i.e. the phone users in this case. It would appear that legislators have tested this bias in the court of public opinion and realised that the law must at least be seen to triumph over business.

ICT and mobile telephony as a template – Nigeria v SA

I asked our informant to sniff for information whether or not industry analysts in SA are even using Nigeria as reference point. His response was ‘As if you know, do you know some guys are saying, “if it can work in Nigeria why not here”, and that has done a lot to soothe nerves’. That is where the story starts getting interesting.

In the first place it is not as if Nigeria has started implementing the intervention and Nigeria has so far not made a law but chances are that when it does it is likely to sail through with not much stress. Why? In Nigeria of all places? Point is: this is one area that Nigeria has done very well without knowing it.

In spite of what a few antagonists of the Nigerian Communications Commission would want the rest of us to believe, that Commission’s intervention strategy has ever been a model to watch. The Commission is known for what we call, in industry parlance, study-discuss–consult–hit model of intervention. By it we mean that the Commission’s deliberate approach to using Consultants to study an industry issue deserving of intervention and subjecting the Consultants report to executive discussion within the Commission. Then taking the issue to industry players for public discussion before using stakeholders’ reaction to fashion an intervention. Should the legislature then move (would it?) to do a law to back the intervention, it almost gets easy passage within and among the industry players, analysts and critics. Some say it is tactical. Methinks it is professional.

The issue is that there is a difference between the South African and the Nigerian models of intervention in implementing the need to have registration of telephone subscribers for various reasons.

Why register subscribers? Issues such as security, crime prevention, network planning, industry management, name it, are but a few of the advantages which those who clamour for the intervention have cited. Just like in the case of co-location of telecommunication infrastructure, telephone subscriber registration is one simple, easy-to-understand industry requirement which is potentially difficult to implement except when properly managed. It has taken South Africa 4 years to get it on stream.

Reason being that the officials there went headlong to write laws which they never discussed with those who would implement it. In Nigeria, such an issue would have been studied by a consultant. The consultant’s report would have been studied and discussed by the Commission and the Commission would have brought the issue for industry discussion and debate before now issuing an implementation paper. For God’s sake that is how it should be. Not barking down mere populist wishful thinking orders to put things on the right path.

Mr. Titi omo-Ettu, telecommunications engineer,  is Vice President of Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, COREN.

To be continued


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