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Telecoms: When lawmaking endangers industry progress

WHERE does somebody begin this story – the story of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, and the National Environmental Standard Regulatory Agency, NESREA, which festered for a time before medications became expedient?

The sealing up of a particular base station in Abuja and the opening of same, and the re-sealing of that very base station seemed to have brought the differences between the two government organisations to the fore. It also heightened the noticeable effects of such differences on the entire communications industry. When you shut a base station you shut down the ability of phone users depending on that station to communicate.

However, commonsense eventually prevailed as the two ministries: Communication Technology and Environment and their agencies sat together to resolve what seemed an intractable relationship. Following the position of the Minister of Communication Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson, the points of differences were nearly resolved and common ground of understanding was being canvassed and accepted by all parties.

Mainly on issue was the distance of base stations from dwelling apartments. While the NCC approval to operators is five metres, NESREA says only ten metres is safe enough for people living near base stations. NESREA canvasses a position that harmful effects of base station especially radiation could be a health hazard and, therefore, has to take all actions including shutting base stations in order to protect the Nigerian people. The question could be asked, was the fears or concerns of NESREA empirically based or based on mere gut feelings?

Militant and near patriotic as NESREA action was, that position, from industry knowledge was based on a fountain of ignorance and makes the country a laughing stock before the international community. From all indications no research has been able to link base station emissions to radiation. Thus it became more absurd and extremely laughable when the House of Representatives Committee on Environment went into a dying fire of hate to invite the NCC to begin to relive all over the trouble that was being conveniently laid to rest. The Committee obviously nursed a paternalistic protection for NESREA.

International standards

Perhaps responding to a vexatious question which you must answer because it is coming from the National Assembly, some of which members seemed to be empowered by law beyond their capabilities, the Executive Vice Chairman, EVC, Dr. Eugene Juwah of the NCC, explained that the regulator follows the Act setting up the Commission and other international standards to superintend the telecommunications industry. A national newspaper of June 26, 2012, captured his remarks: “The major cause of the conflict comes from the fact that NESREA Act came four years after the establishment of the NCC. So, adequate care was not taken to harmonise certain conflicting issues that were inherent then, but moves are on to resolve those issues.

“The issue of setback of five metres is not in any Act. They are contained in our regulations. The law empowers us as regulators to make regulations and they become subsidiary laws. These are made by the NCC Board just like any other boards.

“As a regulator, our Act empowers us to regulate services and infrastructure and that is the main focus of our regulatory mandate for telecommunications industry. So, we have a right to set standards about size and setback of masts, among other matters. As a matter of fact, the radiation from a telecommunications mast is less than what we get from our television. This is empirical that can be measured. So the issue of pollution is very minimal.”

So many people including the former EVC of the NCC, Engr Ernest Ndukwe, hold so strongly to the last point made by Dr. Juwah that emission from a base station is far less than that of a domestic TV or radio. But why would the House Committee on Environment goad activities of an ancillary agency instead of touching base with the House Committee on Communications and probably compare notes?

The answer will be found in the tardiness with which certain things are being handled in the House. Two examples will suffice. The NIGCOMSAT Bill and the Telecom Electromagnetic Frequency Bill recently sneaked through some rounds of reading at the House of Representatives with the NIGCOMSAT Bill actually getting to the Senate. The Bills did not go through any public reading nor were inputs invited from stakeholders, thus attracting random condemnations. There were widespread fears that both bills could jeopardise the status of the laws already existing in the various sectors while some critics sought to know the experts and consultants employed by the House members before embarking on such lawmaking odyssey.

Raising their voices against the activities of the lawmakers were The National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (NATCOMS) and Leadership and Role Model Foundation (LRMF). But it was just good that somebody was watching and ready to shout because instead of reinventing the wheel and doing things our way, the international standards spelt out in many documents could serve as a guide. That is the point NATCOMS was making in its reaction.

Having said that, it is the considered opinion of this writer that the patriotic responsibility of the law makers is to make laws that will foster the development of their people, not the NESREA type which came four years after the Nigerian Communications Act to create tension and unnecessary distraction but for the timely intervention of the supervising ministers.

Mr. Osalumese Anegbe writes from Port Harcourt, Rivers State.


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