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Open letter to the Minister of Communications

Fri, 22 Nov 2013 Source: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku

President Barack Obama of the United States told us Africa does not need strong men but strong institutions and we hailed him. But our recent history in Ghana has exposed the porosity of that statement because it took one strong man, Martin Amidu to expose some of the most ‘gargantuan’ corruption in this country, when a supposed strong institution like the Attorney-General’s Department failed woefully.

I say this, Mr. Minister, to say that the few times I have heard you speak in your fairly new capacity as Minister of Communications, you came across as a strong man, and we need a strong man like you to ensure that service providers in the telecommunications sector lived up to their licensing requirements and to the promises they made, and continue to make to customers.

Mr. Minister, your most recent blunt statement about the claims of telcos to nationwide coverage was a typical example of the kind of strong men we need; people who would take the bull by the horn and call a spade and spade, not a big spoon. Again, this is another area lots of Ghanaians (as per their comments on social media) feel a supposed strong institution like the industry regulator, National Communication Authority (NCA) could have been doing better.

The NCA stood by and watched the misleading marketing communications go on in the industry without saying a word. Indeed, the telcos are misleading the public about several other things apart from their ambiguous claim to nationwide coverage. They battle for fame on who has the fastest mobile broadband speed. They each claim to have the fastest speed based on some numbers written on their respective mobile broadband devices, when in fact they are fully aware the speed is not in the numbers. Sometimes one wonders if that is a deliberate intellectual dishonesty.

Each of the telcos make claims to being first to do this, or that, when in fact little due diligence would show some other telco may have gone ahead with that service or product. They each claim to have the most affordable tariffs, but the figures speak for themselves. And, Mr. Minister each of the telcos even dare to tell us they have the best Quality of Service (QoS), as if we are so dumb we do not even know what sloppy experience we go through every day on each of their networks.

So yes, in that regard, we need a strong man to tell them in their faces that the services they offer to us are largely prepaid so they gain money and we lose even when the service is appalling. It takes a strong man, particularly when the supposed strong institution is failing, to tell each telco in their face that we are tired of their empty promises, misleading commercials/adverts and the generally poor voice and data services they are offering us for prepaid.

But Mr. Minister, much as it is, and would always remain great to tell the telcos what they need to be told, and to even whip them into line as per the laws governing their operations, it is also important to note that you run the risk of wanting to pick one side of the coin and leaving the other, which is impossible. You cannot, in a zillion years pick one side of a coin and leave the other. The two would always go together, particular for you as the Minister of Communications, who, in my most humble opinion, is the one to look out for both consumers and the industry players. I would have thought that in your position, you would better appreciate the fact that the interests of consumers and industry players are largely coterminous, and could not be easily divorced as lay men may view it.

I stand to be corrected, but every time I heard you speak about the industry, you came across as a consumer rights activist and rather antagonistic towards the industry players, as if you have information that they are deliberately ripping off consumers and this country, and you are here to whip them into line, at all cost. As a consumer, I like to see them whipped into line, but as a journalist, I would like to look at the issue a bit more objectively and ask some critical questions.

For instance, in your comment about their claim to nationwide coverage, you did not explain to us what your understanding of nationwide coverage is, but you just stated bluntly that their claim was a ‘deception’. I do not know you as a person with telecoms background but I can assume that your able lieutenants at the ministries and related agencies may have advised you on that. It would be beneficial to share that information with us rather than just say they are deceiving us. We may then do a comparative analysis between their claim and the other sectors which also claim nationwide coverage, and read between the lines ourselves, rather than you telling us. I do not think it is fair to use your high office, and most believable voice to cast such a blatant slur on your children without any explanation.

Secondly, you said the telcos have promised to reinvest between 15-18% of their earnings into improving network quality, and you gave them an ultimatum to show us some improvement in QoS by the close of the year or “there will be no mercy for the cripple”. You did not tell us whether they gave you the timelines; you also did not tell us the level of service quality improvement you are expecting, and how that would be measured. Besides, you said ‘no mercy for the cripple’ as if to say you are only here with a whip to punish even if there were genuine reasons that may have ‘crippled’ their effort to deliver within your deadline.

Thirdly, I have heard you twice say you won’t hesitate to compel telcos to do Domestic Roaming if they do not improve their coverage and service quality. That came across like a threat, but you have not told us what domestic roaming is, and how that is going to change anything. You did not also say how feasible it is in our country given all the constraints facing the telcos, which I have heard you say very little about. The constraints, I mean. I would have thought that, some of the passion with which you want to see service quality improve for all of us, Mr. Minister, would also be channelled into assisting the telcos, whom your predecessor described as ‘true partners of this government’, to deal with some of the long-standing impediments in the way of top quality service.

PERMITS TO EXPAND AND IMPROVE

I may not know everything, but at least I know about fibre cuts/theft, which National Security has intervened and is helping to resolve; power fluctuation, which is fairly stable now; the heavy and numerous taxes, charges and levies, which is partly solved by the NECT, but partly still an issue, particularly at the CST level; and last but not the least, the non-issuance of permits for telcos/tower companies to install the needed infrastructure, to expand their coverage and to improve the quality of service, as you demand, within the deadline you gave.

My understanding is that there are thousands of permits waiting to be granted by the various state agencies like the EPA and MMDAs in particular. The delay of these permits is largely because of the unfounded health concerns expressed by some Ghanaians about the telecom masts. I would have thought that government would lead the way in educating the public on the fallacy of that suspicion. I would have thought that you would find ways to work with your colleague Ministers to push the permitting agencies under them to issue the permits so that the telcos could expand, and improve the service possibly within your deadline. But it seems your approach rather place the telco between the lion and the snake; no permits to expand because some consumers do not want masts in the communities even though they want quality service; and you, Mr. Minister is also threatening that if they fail to expand and improve ‘there will be no mercy for the cripple.”

I want to repeat, Mr. Minister, that as a consumer, I would stand by you any day to whip the telcos into line and ensure that I got value for the money I pay them. But as a journalist, I look at this issue with a lens that looks beyond just the poor services to find out what is causing the poor service. Some of it is definitely from the telcos themselves, but some of it is also from factors beyond their control. Some of the factors, Mr. Minister I believe you can do something about, and I would humbly plead that you use your powerful office and strong man stature to assist the telcos on those so we can all meet the deadline given so we can all achieve that level of quality service. After all, the aim is not to wait for the telcos to fail and be punished; the aim is to ensure they deliver on their promise. And this is not a ‘we and they’ thing. If telecom service goes bad, we all suffer, including the telcos.

GIFEC

Again, the question of coverage brings to mind the role of the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communication (GIFEC), Mr. Minister. Lately, it seems the fund managers, whose tenure of office ended recently, are turning their attention to ‘things’ other than the primary focus of the fund. The fund was primarily to mount masts/infrastructure in areas where individual telcos do not have the commercial motivation to go, so that all the telcos could share the GIFEC towers and provide service to the remotest parts of the country.

Indeed, I picked from your domestic roaming ‘threat’ that your intention is to enable all Ghanaians to make and or receive calls wherever they find themselves on the soils of Ghana. Domestic Roaming may be a good idea (once explained). But aren’t we looking too far when we could just find out what exactly GIFEC has been using all the big moneys they collect from the telcos for; whether they are actually focusing on the core mandate, which would help expand coverage; or they are using it for other non-core stuff. I recently I read GIFEC made some donation to some organisation completely outside of their purview. Even NCA, which collects millions of dollars every month, does not make such unnecessary donations.

In fact GIFEC itself is supposed to have representation from all the telcos on its Board. But the individuals who constituted the recent past GIFEC were largely people who have resigned from the telcos they were supposed to represent and yet those same persons remained members of the board. Is this not waste of resources that could have gone into expanding coverage to places where telcos do not find the commercial motivation to go on their own as individuals? Ghanaians would expect to see you exhibit some strong man posture in demanding accountability from GIFEC too.

EASTERN CORRIDOR AND LTE

Mr. Minister, I have also heard you inviting the telcos to partner government in trenching along the eastern corridor for the laying of the last mile fibre optics facility. As a journalist, I took interest in finding out what the telcos thought about your invitation, and my information is that you are demanding that they paid a million euros each as partners, and 300,000 euros rent every year for sharing in that space. I am told that is an investment the telcos are not ready for now because their focus is on improving the existing service, which we all agree is sloppy and need to be improved within your deadline. But when you speak about it, you seem not to care about their concerns in the least. You usually say it is for their own good if they partner with government now than later. You sound like you are only looking for money, money, money; and even if the telcos are constrained, you do not care.

You have also invited the telcos to share in government’s LTE program to improve their service quality. Surely, LTE would improve service quality anywhere. But we would like to know what would be required of them in sharing with you and whether they would not be better off finding alternatives where possible. As you said, private licenses have been issued for LTE so why this push for telcos to join government’s LTE facility as if that is the best option. It may as well be the best option, but you have not explained to us how that is the best option.

And Mr. Minister, did you know about Subah Infosolutions Limited and their claim to auditing your industry players for revenue assurance for the state. I believe it is time for you to break your deafening silence on that matter. Why a company would be paid GHC75million to audit the industry under you, and the company would claim it work improved talk tax from an average of GHC19million a month in 2010 to an average of GHC40million a month two years later, without telling us that telecoms subscribers were 17million in 2010 and in 2012 they hit over 26million, so part of the increase in taxes could be due to that. Moreover, the telcos continued to engage in several promotions, all of which brought service tax revenues to government.

Moreover, questions should be asked of the GHC75million paid to Subah. Did they get GHC555million incremental revenue for the country? I ask because Subah is entitled to 13.5% of the increment revenue they show in their audit, and GHC75million is 13.5% of GHC555. So we need to find out if indeed they made found that the telcos were hiding GHC555million from us, particularly when the former Minister of Finance, Dr. Kwabena Duffuor said in his budget that government was expecting the entire CST to generate only GHC430million. I really do want to see some of your strong man posture here, Mr. Minister. Ask the critical questions and demand the answers.

20% HANDSET IMPORT TAX

Mr. Minister, I also wish to humbly remind you of your promise that you would be willing to sit with the mobile handset dealers/manufacturers to discuss possible tax wavers. My understanding is that they have sought to hold meetings with you but to no avail. I also realise, since you took office, you have visited all the telcos individually, and made very major pronouncements based on the discussions you held with individual telcos. But you have still not met them as a group to pick up their common challenges so you can all work together to find solutions. You have issued ultimatums without telling us how you/government are helping to solve the problems.

Lastly, we the members of the Network of Communication Reporters have also been seeking to meet with you but you have not been available. I could not begrudge you because you are not obliged to meet with s w31us. But it is a bit worrying that you find time to go on the usual media platforms, where the discussion usually takes the form of propaganda, but you have not found time to meet with industry journalists to discuss your vision and hear our humble opinion about issues of common interest. Please make time for us.

The last time I advised a politician I got death threats and ‘wild’ insults. Speaking of which, please Mr. Minister, I have nothing personal against you previous deputy, but I think you and the industry deserve a better and more competent Deputy Minister of Communications. The reason is simple, the industry is a hi-tech one, and neither you nor your previous deputy were members of Parliament to have learnt from the appropriate Parliamentary Committee like you predecessor did. Please, impress it upon his Excellency the President to choose someone who would be able to engage industry players competently as your deputy. It is good for all of us. ,

I hope my humble suggestions would be taken in good faith. I honestly wish you the best in your work, Mr. Minister.

Samuel Nii Narku Dowuona

Columnist: Dowuona, Samuel Nii Narku