Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, Chairman Board of Directors, MTN Nigeria Plc (Interview with The Guardian)
The country can be said to be on partial lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How do you think this has affected business generally in Nigeria?
First and foremost, the COVID-19 pandemic is a human tragedy that has affected hundreds of thousands of people in unimaginable ways. The scale of death and loss is heartbreaking and at times, difficult to fathom. So, even as we focus on mitigating the impact of the outbreak at home, we pray for and empathize with people, communities, and nations around the world. In Nigeria, there is no doubt that the lockdown has had a major impact on businesses and significantly slowed down economic activity. As the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning has said, it is likely to result in a slowdown in Nigeria’s economic growth, and may potentially turn into a recession depending on how long it lasts. But I think it is important to consider how it would affect different types of businesses. The impact will be different depending on the nature and scale of business operations. For a major telecom company like MTN, which provides what is regarded as an essential service, we have had to take unprecedented steps to initiate remote working to ensure that there are no service disruptions. The vast majority of our people are working from home and doing so effectively. At the same time, our business continuity plans are fully up and running, and our teams and partners are, in fact, working overtime to ensure our sites remain operational and services available for everyone. We have also seen significant pressure on our networks, as people rely even more on our services and infrastructure to stay connected. This has been so important for us because hundreds if not thousands of other businesses need to try and remain operational while at home, and teleworking is now the norm. Obviously, some are better able to do this than others. However, the telecoms network underpins it all, which is why we have been so focused on ensuring that our services remain available and stable. Our ability to provide those services is a critical pillar of the continuity plans of other businesses.
While understanding the impact on us and other big businesses is important, I am much more concerned about the implications for the micro, small and medium-sized businesses and petty traders across the country; many of whom are in our supply chain. We are committed to supporting our partners and our eco-system, but the longer the shutdown goes on, the graver that impact will be and the greater the support these businesses will require. Small and micro-businesses make up the vast majority of Nigeria’s productivity, and they remain at the forefront of our thinking during this time.
What has been the impact on the telecoms sector specifically?
This period has further affirmed the saying that telecom is the infrastructure of infrastructures. The sector has seen an increased demand for services, particularly data services since the lockdown began. The more people stay at home, the more they need to stay connected. The industry and I dare say the world, is having to adapt to and adopt social distancing, and remote working. This has challenged the way in which we dimension, service, and maintain our sites. Infrastructure, deployed for a certain number of subscribers, has had to be adapted to the new realities and are being utilized to service many more people. I am incredibly proud of how we have been able to do this while ensuring the safety of our staff and keeping Nigerians connected. We regard this as our core obligation during this period and are investing to ensure that the capacity needed is always available.
Subscribers have been calling on telecoms operators to cut down voice and data tariffs, especially now that there is also SIT-AT-HOME order. How possible can that come to fruition?
I think this is really important and I am pleased to be able to provide some clarity for all of our subscribers reading this. We know that people want to do more during this time, but we must ensure that the overall network capacity is not exceeded, which would have catastrophic effects for all and mean that no-one would be able to communicate at all. If we provide free or cheaper access to voice and data services, then the usage level would go up astronomically, and we might get to a level where the network gets so congested that nobody will be able to communicate, defeating the purpose. We are committed to ensuring we find the optimal balance between enhanced access and network availability and stability. We are making specific investments to ensure that this could be possible in the future. The NCC has also been working to support network stability. They have been supportive and have provided us with an additional backhaul (E-Band) spectrum to support us in alleviating congestion issues in the core network. We sincerely appreciate the need to offer some relief to our customers at this time, but we need to balance such demand with the availability of the network. In this regard, we recently decided that every one of our subscribers will be given 300 free SMS per month. This supports the requirement for communication while ensuring capacity is not threatened. I think the importance of the SMS intervention may not have been fully understood. The vast majority of our customers are people who do not have smartphones and can therefore not do data-enabled services like WhatsApp, FaceTime, and browsing. This segment is the most vulnerable and requires the most help. So while access to SMS services might not be what everyone wants, its vital to millions of our people who continue to use it as their primary means of communication. This is reinforced by the numbers we are seeing, with more than 9 million subscribers already actively using the free SMS access. As with the broader medical response, I think it is these communities we have to prioritize first. They are the most vulnerable.
In what areas have MTN made contributions to support govt in COVID-19 management? Also, did MTN make any financial pledge?
MTN has been following a phased approach to our COVID response; I’m happy to provide some clarity about what that means. We have already announced the first phase of support, which I will summarise, and I can also give you some insights into what the second phase will look like. In phase one, our initial focus was on our employees, systems, processes, and structures to ensure that that the services we provide remain available to our customers, despite the disruption. We recognize the even greater importance of robust telecommunications services during this period and have taken the necessary steps to ensure they remain available while protecting our staff. Having established operational sustainability, we have focused on the areas where we can provide the most effective support to the Federal and State Governments. A significant part of our commitment is to ensure that our infrastructure can be utilized effectively by health services workers to carry out their duties. That’s why we have partnered with the NCDC to provide access to communications to co-ordinate their response. The NCDC is at the frontline of our response and needs to be given every support to contain COVID-19. It’s also why we have provided support to State Governments, through the Nigerian Governors Forum, to ensure they can stay connected, have the data they need to target response including a bespoke vulnerability assessment for each state, and can continue to deliver governance remotely during this period.
One of the most difficult aspects of a pandemic in the digital age is the ability to access reliable, validated information about the nature of the pandemic and how to protect ourselves. That is why our partnership with the NCDC includes a channel enabling the distribution of health information to all our subscribers.
We know that many Nigerians are voluntarily complying with the governments’ order to stay at home and we commend them for it. With this in mind, we have focused on ensuring that all our subscribers, particularly those in the most vulnerable situations, can continue to communicate with their loved ones and support networks, access critical health-related information and transfer money easily. As I mentioned earlier, we are providing every subscriber with up to 300 free SMS messages per month, and more than 9 million subscribers are actively making use of it on a daily basis. We have also zero-rated access to critical information websites such as NCDC, WHO, and Federal Ministry of Health, to enable access to quality information, and our Yello Digital Financial Services subsidiary has waived all fees on money transfers during this period.
Finally, for that phase, we recognized that access to telecommunications services is only one aspect of the solution that Nigeria needs; access to healthcare is vital. That is why we committed, through the MTN Foundation, N500 million to the provision of healthcare facilities and consumables, which MTN will procure and provide to the health services institutions across Nigeria. I am very pleased to inform you that we are at advanced stages towards deploying these monies where they are needed most. The NCDC will guide us in this process.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, I am able to give you a few insights into how we are supporting in our next phase, which will include the expansion of some of our existing commitments as well as a number of new commitments in areas we believe to be vital.
The COCAVID initiative has brought together private sector companies and individuals who are contributing funds that will be used in the broader fight against COVID-19, including the provision of isolation centers across the country. The level of support that has been mobilized in a very short period of time is commendable. We are part of that coalition and have committed N1 billion to it. The more like-minded people are able to collaborate and pool resources to achieve scale, the more effective interventions will be.
I think one of the most important areas in which we are providing support is with regards to data (information) that will aid the government and its institutions in taking decisions. Across the states, and at the federal level, we are utilizing Artificial Intelligence and big data to provide the government with predictive needs analysis and vulnerability indexing that will underpin decision making. These will help them understand vulnerabilities and needs.
Finally, I think it is important to reference the change in the way we communicate our brand. As you will know, ‘everywhere you go’ is an iconic and immediately recognizable reference point for MTN, but given the current circumstances, and as part of our effort to encourage people to stay at home, we have adapted it temporarily to be ‘everywhere you stay.’
We will continue to review what is going on and will collaborate and contribute as, need arise and as we continue to consult, both internally and externally. As has been established across the world, these are very trying times. Everything is in flux. We require every hand to be on deck, pulling in the same direction in order to get through this.
With the sit-at-home policy, how will telecoms services cope with the surge in Internet traffic and the likes?
You have hit the core operational challenge that we face, which I had alluded to previously. There’s a surge in usage, especially internet usage. While we all have built-in redundancy that allows us to assure service during surges in traffic, none of our networks is built to handle that type of surge over a sustained period of time. While every network will ensure there is headroom, establishing capacity that allows scale during surges, the current situation is unprecedented. I have said we invested and most of that investment is towards sustainability and resilience. Capacity expansion is being threatened, not because the desire to invest is not there, but because the ability is severely impacted by the effects of the pandemic. Supply chains have been disrupted. The world, including Nigeria, is looking to get much needed medical supplies to places they are needed. The manufacture of network elements has given way to the need to ramp up critical medical supplies. Every sector is impacted.
It is the same across the globe. Policymakers and regulators are looking for innovative ways to deal with this. The need to balance support for critical services that the economy requires to continue to run and the very important need to educate and entertain those forced to stay indoors is a source of concern for everybody. I am sure that both the NCC and the Ministry are working round the clock to find a solution. I am confident that they’ll find a way, working with the industry to manage the challenge that this poses.
Sir, what is 5G and benefits to nations?
Thank you for asking, because it seems like the benefits of 5G have taken a backseat in the conversations recently! You cannot answer the question about 5G without stepping back to discuss the evolution of mobile telecom services. The 2G network was built for voice and SMS communications when telecoms first went mobile. 3G was introduced for web-browsing and general data access, while 4G enabled higher-speed data and video streaming. These were all phases of evolution and have underpinned the growth of digital economies globally, and enabled the connectivity that we now rely on in our daily lives.
5G is the latest evolution of this process, and as with all the others has been designed collectively by the industry and regulators to a common standard and offers a number of benefits such as:
Together, these benefits will enable healthcare, mining, manufacturing, agriculture, and utilities sectors and sub-sectors to apply advanced digital transformation applications to their processes, in order to improve output. Businesses within these industries will benefit from improved connectivity, reduced response times, larger data volumes, faster access to digital services and applications, and improved value for money.
All these things create the platform for rapid growth in Nigeria’s emerging Digital Economy, which is a key priority for us, and for the Nigerian economy as the transition from oil to other sources of revenue accelerates.
Controversies have been trailing the 5G technology across the globe with people linking it to having triggered COVID-19 pandemic. Sir, as the Board Chairman, MTN Nigeria, can you educate us?
Absolutely, and this is another really important point. One of the hardest things about managing the COVID-19 crisis is the amount of fake news and conspiracy theories that are circulating, and the impact that this has on behavior. Let me state to the best of my knowledge that 5G has not been linked to any adverse health effects not to talk of inducing the COVID-19. Any assertion to the contrary is absurd and scientifically flawed. It is also incredibly irresponsible because, in some extreme circumstances, we have seen attacks on telecoms infrastructure, which may lead to disruption of services that are absolutely essential, especially during this time.
You don’t need to take my word for it, you can simply look at the results of a recent study by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection(ICNIRP), an independent international watchdog, which confirmed there is no risk of harm to people, including children, from exposure to radio frequencies from mobile networks, including 5G. In its findings, the Commission reviewed 20 additional years of research and echoed previous reassurances from the World Health Organization. These findings have also been re-iterated by the Nigerian Communications Commission who monitor radiation emissions from base stations nationally (none of which are 5G), and have confirmed that they are well within set limits. So, there is no link between 5G and COVID-19 and no link between telecoms services in general and health issues.
With these campaigns against the 5G technology, do you think it will still be deployed in Nigeria?
I think that our immediate focus has to be on addressing the COVID crisis and getting Nigeria through it. We can address the potential deployment of 5G and the issues that have been raised once we have overcome the challenge in front of us. But what I will also say is that I do think, once all the relevant tests and preliminary processes are complete, and the NCC and key stakeholders are of the view that the conditions are right, 5G will be available in Nigeria. It has the potential to have transformational economic benefits, some of which I have previously outlined. As a responsible service provider, we will only deploy services as demanded by our customers.
How do you see telecoms regulation in Nigeria viz-a-viz alleged overbearing of the Ministry on NCC, an independent regulator?
I think this is not the time to be talking about divisions. This is a time for us all to be working together, towards one common goal, and that is what the industry, the regulators, and the policymakers are doing. As you know, I spent many years working in the telecoms regulations sector in Nigeria, and I think they are world-class, but you might want to ask someone else!
When are we going to have at least 95% improved telephony service in Nigeria?
This is what the regulator, the Ministry, and the industry are all trying to achieve by creating the right environment for the investments that are needed. The Honorable Minister for Communication & Digital Economy recently presented a National Broadband Plan to the President. The plan details the vision for broadband deployment and adoption between now and 2025. A key pillar of the plan is the target of 4G penetration for 90% of the population by 2025. The plan lists in detail actions, which all stakeholders will be required to take towards the achievement of the set target(s). Given that the industry had the opportunity to provide input into the development of the plan, it is clear that we are in alignment with the government and other stakeholders on the commitment to make the required improvements. We will, therefore, be leveraging on the opportunity of the plan and the support of all stakeholders to take the steps required towards achieving the results we all desire.
I’m sure you know this already, but there are 20 million subscribers in Nigeria, whose only option is MTN because no other operator has built infrastructure for them. That said, I think the current circumstances mean our focus has to be on addressing the challenge in front of us, and that these conversations, which have been going on for some time, can be addressed when the emergency situation we face is over.
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