The deregulation of the telecommunications sector in 2001 led to the issuance of telecom licenses to major telecom providers. Unlike the pre-deregulation era which was characterized by poor services by NITEL, the erstwhile sole telecom provider, there has been an increase in international trade and investment as a result of the telecommunication revolution in Nigeria. The adverse effect of this is the staggering amounts of interconnect debts threatening to crumble the nation's telecommunication sector.
In order to attract new subscribers and maintain existing ones, telecom providers have over some years given away free airtime through several packages such as free mid-night/weekend calls, low tariffs for calls to family and friends, bonus data bundle e.t.c. This has gradually led to a decline in the service delivery of the telecom providers. It is without doubt that the increasing free minute without commensurate returns is the main cause of the accumulating interconnects debts in Nigeria.
The Clearinghouses who are supposed to regulate interconnection and interconnect debts between telecom operators are now a major part of the problem. Some Clearinghouses dubiously withholds interconnect revenue and refuse to remit same to the telecom provider despite several demands. In such a circumstance, the telecom provider would have to drag the Clearinghouse to the Nigerian Communication Commission ("NCC") to seek redress. This is why telecom providers prefer to transact directly between themselves without the services of the Clearinghouses.
Despite the growth in alternative disputes mechanisms, many telecom providers still enter into Interconnection Agreements without inserting dispute resolution or arbitration clauses in their agreements. Once a claim arises out of or in connection with such Interconnection Agreement especially recovery of interconnect debts, the creditor telecom operator is bound to be at a loss as to how to recover its outstanding debts.
The 2012 NCC Guidelines on Procedure for Granting Approval to Disconnect Telecommunications Operators ("the 2012 Guidelines") provides that where an operator have fully exhausted all the options contained in the Interconnection Agreement for resolving Interconnect disputes, it may apply to NCC for disconnection of the services of the debtor telecom operator. But the procedure for granting approval for disconnection is too cumbersome, little wonder no telecom provider has been disconnected in recent times on account of default in paying outstanding interconnect debts.
The procedure for disconnecting debtor telecom providers should be reviewed to reflect modern realities. NCC should probe and scrutinize the packages of telecom operators to ensure that they conform to international best practices. The sanction against Clearinghouses who fail to remit interconnect revenue to the creditor telecom provider should be explicit. In the same vein, telecom providers should protect themselves by inserting unambiguous arbitration clauses and invoke such clauses when interconnect debts remain unpaid. A lingering problem demands a proactive solution!
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