The telecommunications sector may have averted an impending service disruption following recent disconnection approval over mounting interconnection debt. Tech Track Africa gathered that Nigerian Communications Commission, which late last year granted the disconnection approval, has now advised the telecom companies to work out peaceful settlement of the over N165 billion debt among themselves and report back to the regulator.
Some of the affected operators, it was gathered, have started making payments to settle their debts and it stands, no operator will be disconnected as the peaceful process continues.
The telecoms regulator had before now engaged in mediation between the operators even as the debts continue to increase. However, in December last year, NCC granted disconnection approval to mobile network operators (MNOs) to disconnect owing colleagues. Specifically, NCC asked MTN, Airtel and IHS to disconnect, on partial basis, services to Globacom, Ntel and interconnect exchange points which include Breeze Micro Limited; Exchange Telecommunications Limited, Solid Interconnectivity Services Limited, Niconnx Communications Limited and Medallion Communications Limited.
However, a delegate of the affected companies were said to have met with the Commission in Abuja to present their case and why the disconnection would not be in the best interest of the industry. The Commission, however, asked them to go back to their respective partners for amicable settlement, noting that it has no issue once they are able to settle.
“The regulator has said that if we are able to settle amicably, there is no problem and we are all working on that now” a source at the meeting from one of the debtor companies told our Correspondent. “Some of them have started making payments. NCC has asked some of them owing interconnect clearinghouses to also pay up so the clearinghouses can pay operators they are also owing. Although so far there is no evidence any of the clearinghouse has been paid by debtor operators. It is not clear what NCC will do about the clearinghouses since they were also listed for disconnection although the debts they are owing is based on what other operators owe them” the source said.
In the December notice to the operators, the affected were given between 10 and 21 days, starting from December 18 to make amends or risk disconnections.
The Commission in the notice cited Section 100 of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003 as the basis of the disconnection approval. The section of the Act in reference states that: “ Notwithstanding the terms and conditions of any interconnection, a party thereto shall not at any time and in any circumstance disconnect or discontinue interconnection to any interconnecting party without the prior written approval of the Commission”.
While there were fears that the disconnection would lead to disruption of service for millions of telecoms subscribers in the country, the Commission said it had put measures in place to prevent such.
However, some of the affected companies, especially the interconnect houses had condemned the action of the regulator, noting that they would be treated unjustly if the disconnection is effected as approved. According to them, the interconnect operators are not the ones collecting money from subscribers, and they are only ably to pay the terminating network when the originating network pay them. “We have explained and presented evidence to the NCC that we have not been paid by the originating networks. We are also being owed our portion of the transit fee. We are being owed hundreds of millions of naira by the telecom operators. All we have been told by the NCC is to also initiate a disconnection process to have operators owing us disconnected also. However this does not solve our problem since it does not guarantee we will ever be paid. We are simply being punished by the NCC for doing our job and now it appears they want us not to be paid at all. This is a sad development for the telecom industry in Nigeria” the operators had said.
Meanwhile, the President of Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola had called for the full implementation of an automated settlement scheme for the telecom industry in Nigeria as the way out of this situation. Under an automated settlement scheme all operators will be made to set aside a percentage of their daily recharge card sales into a settlement account to be used every month to handle their interconnect and facility obligations.