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Call masking: Hammer may fall on interconnect clearing houses this week

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…Stakeholders warn NCC of hasty conclusions
…Affected operators demand thorough investigations
…NCC rules out license revocation

By Prince Osuagwu (Hi Tech Editor)

Barring any last minute intervention, the hammer of the telecom regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, would drop on some interconnect clearing houses this week.

•Prof Umar Garba Danbatta

This is following statement from the commission, penultimate week that no fewer than six internet exchange operators in the country are likely to lose their operating licenses over call masking before end of February.

The licensees involved include Medallion Communications Limited, Interconnect Cleaning House Nigeria Limited, Niconnx Communication Limited, Breeze Micro Limited, Solid Interconnectivity and Exchange Telecommunications Limited.

The Nigerian Communications Commission said it will impose the maximum possible penalties on any of its licensees implicated in the practice of masking of international telephone calls.

The commission says the operating licenses of some of the interconnect exchange and other licensees involved in the practice could either be revoked or suspended this week.

The action was a fall out of the Commission’s meeting with senior operatives from the nation’s security services and representatives of the said licensees at the Commission’s Abuja offices.

The commission said it confronted the affected licensees with some of the evidence at its disposal indicating that they (the clearing houses) have been masking calls.

Call masking is when a telephone number making a call is disguised or displayed as a different number. It is typically the case with companies that use what is known as non-geographical numbers.

The Commission had over the years warned that the practice is illegal and that telecom companies indulging in the practice would be punished as it  limits competition and also portends dire security implications for the country.

However, different stakeholders have picked hole in NCC’s planned action and called for a broader investigation into the call masking allegation to ensure the right people are punished.

Some of the stakeholders feel that the channels calls pass through before getting to the final recipient and should be properly scrutinized before a wrong group is punished for the sins of others.

One of the stakeholders, who spoke to Hi-Tech on condition of anonymity, specifically fingered the telecom operators who he said are the last to see the call before the final recipient.

According to him, “in my little knowledge of the process a call travels before the final consumer picks it, the mobile network operators are the last to see the calls and also have the right to pass it to the final consumer or not. If that is the case and of course they have the wherewithal to know a masked call, why would they pass such calls to the consumer?

It is at this point, I want the NCC to think through its action and know whether to revisit the case with a more thorough investigation. Much as we would want the commission to be firm in regulating the industry, it would be a great disservice to the entire sector if its actions are based on hasty conclusions”

Some of the fingered interconnect clearing houses told Hi-Tech that they believe that NCC was acting under pressure due to the precarious security situation of the country but would want the commission to liaise with them to find out where the problem was coming from rather than hitting them with a sledge hammer.

“The regulator is like a father to all of us. There is a limit to how confrontational you can be to your father even if he is wrong, but personally, I believe that it would be more beneficial if the commission would explore our knowledge of the industry to be able to get to the root cause of this menace. Yes, I call it a menace because I know that is what call masking is, to the industry and the economy of a nation” one of the clearing houses told Hi-Tech.

A top official of another clearing house also fingered by the NCC said: “It may interest you to know that we have no power to tamper with MNO traffic that passes through our system. It is actually the MNOs that profit a lot from call masking and refilling, if there is one in the sector now.

“Besides, we are still having meetings with the NCC on this issue and have not concluded our meetings. I was shocked to read in the papers that we have been indicted without presenting to us any evidence of wrongdoing. I still believe that there will be a middle ground on the issue because NCC is not known for taking such hasty decisions”.

Meanwhile, the NCC has also come out to recant its earlier position that the operators would lose their licenses, but insisted there must be punishment. The commission’s Executive Commissioner, Stakeholders Management, Mr. Sunday Dare, recently in Lagos, disclosed that the NCC was not going to take extreme action on the offenders even though actions must be taken.

According to him, “The Commission is reviewing the responses of the Interconnect Clearinghouses on the allegations of call masking. Based on their responses, the Commission will determine, which of the licenses would either be suspended or sanctioned,” he said.

“For us, revocation would be the last resort because we want to ensure that the telecom industry remains healthy. The Interconnect Clearinghouses are presently cooperating with us. We might see some suspensions and sanctions in the next one week, but I don’t see  revocation happening because we want to work with them, we don’t want to see any stress in the telecom industry.”

The commission’s earlier statement had said: “In accordance with the provisions of the Nigerian Communications Act and its subsidiary regulations, the implicated licensees have been given till the 31st of January to show cause why the Commission should not either revoke or suspend their operating licenses in view of evidence of their involvement  at the disposal of the Commission and the security agencies.

“Because of the critical impacts of this nefarious practice on national security and consumer experience, the Commission is determined to decisively deal with any of its licensees implicated in the scam. We do not want to expose the country to any further embarrassment. At the very least, serious sanctions would be imposed on them if it is found that their involvement does not justify suspension or revocation of their licenses.”

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