telecommunications

By Okoh Aihe

By 10am tomorrow, an ad hoc committee of the Senate will deliberate on what appears a most important concern to the nation. If we have not succeeded in reordering God’s natural cosmology and tomorrow really comes, the Senate Ad Hoc Committee investigating the Pay-TV Hikes and Demand for Pay-Per-View subscription model, will be meeting with critical stakeholders of the industry by way of exploring opportunities to bringing prices down to friendly levels.

The meeting holds at Senate Conference Room 231, Senate New Building, National Assembly Complex, Abuja. Invited to this all- important meeting are the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, National Broadcasting Commission, Central Bank of Nigeria, Federal Inland Revenue Service, Standards Organisation of Nigeria, Nigerian Investment Promotion Commission, Bureau of Public Enterprises, All Pay-TV operators – DSTV, TSTV, MYTV, OURTV, GOTV, Star Times, CSO/NGOs, with interest on the subject, and the general public.

Quite a full house. They will gather not to discuss some other compelling issues like the ASUU strike for about seven months, the lack of infrastructure, including connecting roads between states and even within states, the failing aviation industry, insecurity – well, thank God for some humble achievements lately- inflation of over 20 per cent, pervasive hopelessness in the land, and, in fact, a general lack of faith in the present administration which has led to a mass exodus of our youths; but they will discuss cost of Pay-TV and how to knock prices down so that Nigerians can enjoy a good diet of beautiful TV programmes. What an ingenious endeavour! 

The Ministry of Information and Culture which controls the fortunes of the broadcast industry was overlooked in the list of invitees. I hope this unfortunate error is immediately corrected.

If you have ever heard of the phrase, elite conspiracy, this is a shouting paradigm. The elites would usually gather to consider matters of immediate interests, either the ones that tickle their fancies or those threatening their inordinate appropriation of good life, and take decisions which usually exclude the ordinary folk out there. So in September 2022, when a majority of Nigerians are praying for the life of this administration to come to a fleeting end, the Nigerian Senate is discussing Pay-TV.

I take it as my unfortunate responsibility to inform the Committee that the last time I did a search on the Pay-TV subscription figure in Nigeria, it was less than seven million. Were the figure to climb to 10 million, it would still be less than five per cent of the population, that is: assuming the population of Nigeria was to stand at 210 million. Tomorrow, the Senate Committee will meet to cater for the interest of a minuscule fragment of the population. How disingenuous at a time the nation is looking for leaders to deliver its people out of a seething cauldron, that is daily living in this part of the world. 

How often do we have to tell these lawmakers that the broadcast industry has been deregulated since August 24, 1992? Decree 38 of 1992, now an act of the National Assembly, National Broadcasting Commission Act CAP N11, which deregulated the sector, also created the Commission to regulate the sector and issue licenses to industry operators. Even this law does not encourage the regulator to fix prices for broadcast products or programmes but to generally superintend the sector. 

The Act may have contemplated that in a free market economy, prices are left to market forces, until there is a gradual sedimentation, to the triumph of such forces. 

The Competition and Consumer Protection Council, CCPC, Tribunal, chaired by Mr Thomas Okosun, supports this view as it recently reminded some complainants against Multichoice, accusing the operator of market dominance, that “Nigeria operates a free market economy”, adding that their argument on price regulation lacked merit. From the goings-on, the National Assembly, market forces may be too slow for their peace, so let us do it the deus ex machina way; let’s enforce it!

Two major things are at stake here as per the published advert by the Committee – cost and technology. The Pay-TV business is for operators with deep pockets and not for tyros. Some operational facilities and items – transponder space on satellite, transmission equipment and programming are purchased in Dollars.

While the Dollar has fairly been stable, the Naira has been on a free-fall,  which would usually lead to a seeming increase in the cost of goods and services, just like a vehicle whizzing by and giving the impression that the trees by the road are moving, when it is indeed the vehicle moving while the trees are stable. The Naira has been moving, growing weaker against the Dollar.

On the issue of technology, let me state here that competition will resolve it. While one will want to explain that the Pay-TV technology is entirely different from GSM technology where an operator could easily introduce Pay-As-You-Go services, the broadcast technology remains a challenge, a little tech riddle to be resolved. 

While tech neutrality remains a convenient maxim for the regulator, I will want to reiterate that competition in the Pay-TV industry which has since been introduced by the regulator, will resolve all the lingering doubts, including cost of products and services. Like the GSM operators who had to look for convenient technologies to woo subscribers, the Pay-TV operators should be allowed to work on their business model to attract customers instead of being forced to do so. 

It is not in the place of the lawmakers to tell an operator what technology to use in running a business, because they hardly know what the operator knows that has informed his business model, and it is not in their place to enforce a price in a free-market economy because they know  little or nothing about the cost elements that will inform pricing in such a market as Pay-TV.

Pay-TV is premium packaging for the elites. Those who build the programme bouquets have one thing in mind: to hit the upper crust of the society and retain their interests with bespoke broadcast services. Oh, is that what they call market positioning? Such a design has very little accommodation for sentiments but strictly business. Our lawmakers should know that.

But why should Pay-TV be the hottest item in the plates of the lawmakers when the nation is almost in tatters? Who wants to eat TV when hunger is on rampage? Who wants to watch TV when this administration, under which they serve, has sabotaged the future of our children?

Should they have so much love for the broadcast industry, let me draw up a little programme for them to rescue a sector that may remain permanently stunted. Since, it is their responsibility to make laws for the nation, the lawmakers should as a matter of urgency, review the Broadcast Act, remove the Act and the regulator from the satanic grip of a serving minister, who in extreme cases, can issue broadcast licenses above the regulator, review the tenure of the Board in the Act, and create the opportunity for the regulator to produce the Nigeria Broadcasting Code without humiliating pressure.

Their oversight function should cover flagship programmes like the Digital Switchover, DSO, and intellectually stimulating programmes like Africast which has been overlooked by this government. The Africast used to be a flagship programme of the NBC and, for decades, it drew broadcast experts – intellectuals, content creators and aggregators, and talents from across the nations of the world. Africast brought light and focus on our nation. But at the moment it is dead!

With absolute reverence, I wish to apprise the lawmakers with whispers from the industry. Some stakeholders believe that the gathering tomorrow is an orchestrated witch-hunt for a particular operator, an irritating encumbrance and unwholesome pressure which are, unfortunately, paradigmatic of the very reason businesses are running away from Nigeria.

Fresh businesses are not coming and those who are operating here in stilts, are being pressured to leave through bogus inquisitions, multiple demands, levies and taxations by the various governments, communities and even Area Boys. Unfortunately, they find little cover under the law. What a shame!

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