By Emma Elebeke
Some stakeholders have in recent times expressed worries over the perceived delay of the ongoing SIM card registration by the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, while some have accused the commission of misappropriation of the N6.1billion earmarked for the project by Federal Government, leading to the probe of the project by the National Assembly.
In this interview with the Executive Vice-Chairman of the NCC, Engr. Eugene Juwah with some journalists, he spoke on the factors responsible for the delay of the SIM card registration, the amount so far spent, challenges, and plans to facilitate the speedy conclusion of the project. He also spoke on other salient issues such as the recent sanction of service providers for poor quality of service, broadband project plan, number portability among others. Excerpts:
Nigerians appear to be worried about the perceived delay in the results of the project, what is the status of SIM card registration?
The project is still ongoing. I felt there are groups of people that are not quite disposed to having their mobile subscriber numbers recorded or put in a database. It is not so everywhere in the world.
How much has this project cost so far?
We have paid about N1.7 billion to contractors, which includes the cost of building the back-end here. Although the N6.1billion earmarked for the project looks a lot, as some people may think, but it is far smaller compared to other registrations we have made in Nigeria. N6.1billion to register 80 million subscribers is quite small. I can tell you that the contractors themselves are complaining about the registration because we take our time to scrutinize all their records and claims before effecting any payment. But I can assure Nigerians that the money is going to be managed very well.
Was there a controversy as a result of mismanagement of information?
Probably, I think that we didn’t do enough job of explaining and by the time we were explaining to the public about what has happened, it had become too late. There is this public bias also when people hear billions. If you compare the budget of SIM card registration between Nigeria and India which is also carrying out this registration, you will notice that it is being carried out by the regulator in conjunction with a special body appointed by government.
Registration of a subscriber in India is about $2, which is about N340 but the one we are doing is the highest registration so far carried out in Nigeria and is about N120 for each subscriber, which is less than half of what India is spending and India is known to be a very low-cost country. Also the process that NCC put in place to manage this money comes through due process.
Are you paying for those being handled by the operators since they are paying?
Yes, what we do is that we pay as they register; when they say they register one person and we verify that it is not double registration, we pay them N120. So far, we have not finished verifying all the data given to us. However, for the data we have verified so far, we have paid about 1.7billion naira to them which include the money of building the back-end here.
What will happen to the balance of the money you have paid?
The registration is still ongoing, you never close your book until you finish your work. We are keeping account of what we are spending. There are government laws that decide how balances are treated and we obey such laws.
Part of what we are told is that this database will be the national data background managed for NIMC, so that they don’t re_register people again, but you talked about NIMC going to do registration, what is the true position?
NIMC is doing a total identity registration but we are doing SIM card registration. Our own is directed towards mobile phones, but NIMC is doing a registration that everybody can use, so when NIMC finishes, INEC doesn’t have to do any registration, but part of what we have registered would be used by NIMC to complete their database. For example we are not taking people’s addresses, eye colour and so on, but NIMC is interested in all that. What we are interested in is your mobile number, your finger print and your photograph; these are the key things we are interested in. so, the data that NIMC will be asking for will be far more than what we will be asking for.
People alleged that NCC does not have the capacity to detect double or multiple registration, is that true?
That is not true, otherwise, how is double or multiple registrations detected? These are some of the fallacies that appear in the newspapers. Normally, what you do is register, but you can never stop double registration, we are not Americans, we are Nigerians. So, there would be double registration, but it would be minimal because we have been advertising that if you have registered once either with the operator or with NCC, you don’t need to register again.
It happens sometimes maybe because some operators made it a lottery that when you register, you win a car and people will register again if they didn’t win in order to try their luck. Double registration will be there but it was taken care of in the design of the SIM card registration, in that we will put software that will check all the fingerprints registered and eliminate a doubly registered fingerprint and that is why we are doing cleaning, harmonization and verification.
We understand that the National Assembly is currently probing the project, what could have informed that action?
We are a government agency and once they summon us, we will come. The probe is going on now, so everybody will see what will come out of it. We are not afraid of anything because we have not done anything wrong. At times people that have issues with NCC will go and publish whatever they like, but I can tell that there is nothing wrong with SIM Card registration.
Nobody here has gained one penny out of it. The process and the money are well managed. It is a difficult process; people think it will take few weeks for the operators to upload what they have registered to us. They were supposed to have sent what they have registered to us since September last year, but I can tell you that the last data they sent to us came at the end of February. So, if we don’t have all the data, we cannot start the harmonization. If we were to buy machines like INEC did, we would have spent several billions but we gave them (consultants) opportunity to go and hire their machines from anywhere and that is why it is economical.
When and how soon should we be expecting result?
We should have been talking about that by now, but of course, probe came and it has to be delayed and we are not doing anything now. The probe is to look at the process and how money was well spent. I came from private sector and I have a name to protect so we are careful because of the controversy surrounding this SIM card registration exercise. If you talk to our registration contractors, they want to take me to court because I want to verify the data they are giving me and it is when I am satisfied with that I will pay them.
For how long has this process been suspended and when do you think they will resume?
I don’t think there is anything wrong with the registration and very soon, we will ask for permission from the House. If we can start before they conclude the probe so that we can finish everything on time. There is no centralized database in Nigeria as I am talking to you now and if we finish it, it will be the first centralized database in Nigeria. If it is that easy, why has it not been done before? So, it is a job we are taking very seriously and who says we don’t have capacity? We have good capacity to supervise them.
There is this impression that NCC has not been able to stamp its authority on the providers and that is why you have network failure…
NCC is not a service provider but a regulator that make laws. When the service providers came newly, nobody cared about laws because Nigeria was hungry for telecommunications service but as the market started growing because Nigeria was the fastest growing in the world for five years, it comes with consequences. There was a huge demand and the operators didn’t plan well, so the infrastructure they had was smaller than the demand. There was a regulation for quality before I came, the quality that they must meet was low and they were meeting it and so by the law they have, they were correct, so you can’t do them anything.
Buy when we came, we had to raise the bar and make a new law and the process of doing this takes time. I can tell you that it is only this January that we were able to make a law and get it approved. So, before, we didn’t have an instrument to force them or to fine them; it was only through persuasion and threat before now which would have been difficult to carry out.
The service providers seem not ready to pay theN1.7billion fine you asked them to pay. Will they pay the fine?
They will pay. A regulator does not issue an order and forget about it. We would always take an action if they don’t follow our directives. But I can tell you that they will pay, maybe by next week.
I am aware that you met on Wednesday and they made presentations on network improvement. Are you satisfied with the network improvement plan?
The mistake a lot people made is that NCC is there to close down the operators and bring someone else, which is really not our function. Our function is to make laws for them and see that they obey them and also see that consumers also get value for their money. So, we are between the operator and the consumers to see that each of them is satisfied. Now, we sanctioned them and dialogued on the reasons for the sanction and about their concerns and I think that we have concluded our dialogue now. So, we are looking forward to their paying by next week.
There lotteries and promotions going on, how would you differential the two?
You know that there is a lottery commission. Like NCC, they are the ones to decide what is lottery or not and what they decide is final. The only place where NCC comes in is where it is deteriorating the quality of service of a particular network. Once we see that the promotion is generating quality of service issues, we would advise the service provider to stop and if it doesn’t stop, then we have this regulation of quality of service.
There are networks that have been very good but when they started promotions, we warned them and they are among the people sanctioned now. They won’t like that because over time they have been meeting our minimum standards, but when they started promotion, they didn’t meet it and we warned and sanctioned them. Now, the style NCC has adopted is that, let the networks decide if they want to do promotion or not, but if we measure and you are not meeting the quality of service, you are liable to pay a fine.
What is the status of your broadband plans?
The issue of enabling environment for broadband is also a major issue. It is an issue like the start of mobile telecommunication. It is an issue which if it is done well will be as big as this mobile telephony. So, it is not something you conceive today and you start; there are many approvals that you go through and NCC is bent on doing this.
Some of the approvals that we need for it is in the ministry, some of them will go the Federal Executive Council and it is only when we get these approvals that we will be able to start, but I can tell you we are pushing these approvals. We just didn’t start; first of all, we had to advertise, select consultants, select people that will help us do it, travel to jurisdictions where it has been done before because this thing has not been done here before and you don’t just wake up and know how to do it. We are about starting now.
You said you are going to focus on telephony and the issue of licenses, how far have you gone?
You must also understand that fixed telephony depends on broadband. Nobody does the old fixed telephony with copper wire again like NITEL. You cannot have fixed telephony without having broadband. So, first, we have to tackle the issue of broadband, get the infrastructure, and get the fibres there and then you license. If our approvals come true, we are going to create an infrastructure sub-sector of the telecommunication.
We ginger a market to stand and not as an operator because we can never be an operator. For example, when mobile telephony started, it was by private sector but government gave them some tax relief which is an incentive. These are the sort of programmes we are looking at which we will get permissions and approvals from government to create the market.
There were two other broadband initiatives, how far about them?
It is also under those programms that we are pursuing our broadband, but it has been restructured to what we call ‘open access model’ which I have talked a lot about. By end of July, there is going to be an international public forum about broadband where we are going to explain to you and the world what we are going to do and listen to you also because we cannot do it without listening to what stakeholder want us to do.
Is the proposed flagging off of number portability by the fourth quarter of this year still realizable?
Yes, it is going well; a stakeholder forum has just met to talk about business rules on like ‘how do someone who wants to change his number starts?’ These rules have to be discussed and put in a document. There was a stakeholders meeting last week on it. These are telecommunication service processes which nobody has done before in Nigeria and which most of the times we get consultants even from abroad to help us. So, it has to be done painstakingly so that it works. As I am talking now, the database service provider has imported all its equipment and I don’t see any delay again but you can never tell.