April 11, 2018

How continued unsolicited messages destroy telecom sector growth

…Subscribers call for tougher measures
…As NCC’s DND code fails to tame monster
…Regulator vows to reform N72bn VAS sector, protect subscribers’ privacy

By Prince Osuagwu (Hi Tech Editor) & Tare Youdeowei

The issue of unsolicited messages from telecom operators to subscribers has become a recurrent decimal in the Nigerian telecom sector.

However, the regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, appears torn between protecting the N72 billion value added service, VAS, sector and that of subscribers’ privacy.

Telecom mast

While the commission admits that there are challenges of VAS operators flooding the networks with all kinds of product offering that most consumers may not be interested in, it also considers that Value Added Service is an important element of the telecom ecosystem necessary for  optimising the benefits of telecom service to the consumers.

The commission believes that “despite its challenges, the VAS segment is a hub for job creation and a huge revenue spinner for the industry. In 2016, VAS market was valued at N72 billion ($200 million) but it is estimated to grow to $500 million in the next five years.”

Nevertheless, Nigerians are at the mercy of the operators with incessant unsolicited text messages, annoying mobile adverts and unwarranted short code calls, among other forms of VAS  can be likened to a lady forced to listen to a suitor’s advances.

Some of these come in droves, most times, draining the battery power level of the phone, unsettling and distracting subscribers from legitimate duties or actions.

From subscribers’ account, operators have even devised a new method of automatically subscribing users into some of the costly VAS services without their consent.

These services that are charged either weekly or monthly at grossly high rates, take a toll on the financial power of the subscribers and in turn, tell on the Average Revenue Per User, ARPU.

According to subscribers, all the telcos are guilty of this and seem not to regret it at all. President of National Association of Telecom Subscribers, NATCOMS, Chief Deolu Ogubanjo, said that the issue of unsolicited VAS messages has remained a hydra-headed monster that the regulator must find a way to tackle.

He said that despite all the efforts of the regulator, the operators still defy the directive and do their usual thing. He, however, advocated heavy sanctions to send strong signals that the operator meant business in protecting the rights of subscribers.

For him, “telecommunications service providers do not deactivate unsolicited messages when subscribers send STOP to the code provided. Even when that is done, operators still charge for sending the messages and continue sending the unsolicited messages.

He added that “until heavy sanctions are meted on the operators, that is when we can have some peace.”

At the 83rd Telecom Consumer Parliament recently in Lagos, subscribers also expressed frustration at the situation they said have defied all measures and asked the NCC to come up with tougher method of compelling the telcos to comply with the rules of engagement.

One of the subscribers, Joseph Igbu, warned the regulator that treating the telcos with kid gloves over the issue of forcing unwanted VAS services on subscribers can conveniently erode the growth trajectories of the Nigerian telecom sector and tarnish the integrity the commission has earned over the years.

He complained that “a situation where a subscriber is not allowed to opt out of a service he inadvertently subscribed to should be seen and regarded as unethical. That is the situation most subscribers in Nigeria currently find themselves in.”

Another subscriber, who narrated a similar story, said he has been losing airtime daily to the services he cannot remember subscribing to. He said all attempts to reach his operator to resolve the abnormality have also failed.

“My service provider has continued to deduct my airtime almost on a daily basis. This is despite subscribing to the ‘Do not Disturb’ service being offered by the NCC,” he said.

Meanwhile, if the rules and regulations in the sector were to be complied with, the issue of unsolicited messages should have been a thing of the past, considering that the  NCC since 2016, directed all operators to activate a short code, 2442, through which subscribers can opt-in to a database that would enable them register their numbers against unsolicited messages. The commission was later to put force behind the directive by declaring that any operator found to violate the DND service directive will pay as much as N500,000.

Yet, the constant invasion of subscribers’ phones by telcos is still a present reality. In fact, a telco who wouldn’t want his name in print told Hi-Tech that the same way subscribers are complaining over VAS messages is same way operators are complaining to the regulator over the incursion of the Over the Top, OTT mobile operators into their licensed areas of services.

He challenged the regulator to address all the problems holistically to create balance in the sector.

The regulator at the consumer parliament promised to reform the VAS sector to maximise its potentials and also ensure that operators respect the rules of engagement.

Executive Vice-Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said that VAS could be very useful and provide services that may  interest consumers and assist online and offline entrepreneurs to reach customers, particularly on the mobile markets both to advertise and to sell their products and services.

He, however, noted that with the challenges, the Commission therefore deems it fit to find a balance between enabling the opportunities that the VAS providers offer to some consumers, mitigating the challenges or  inconvenience they could constitute to other consumers.

He warned operators that a good value added service concept offered to the wrong market is as good as a wrong concept, and so, they needed to invest more in analysing subscribers to know what they want.