Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, Chairman Board of Directors, MTN Nigeria Plc (Interview with The Punch)
- In what ways has the corona virus affected the operations of MTN?The Coronavirus and the associated lockdown to stem spread of the infection has had an unprecedented effect on businesses and the socio-economic lives of people across the world. At MTNN, we decided that there are three important things to focus on in this context. The first is the way in which we have had to adapt our operations in order to work effectively in a lockdown. The second is the way in which new demands on our network are affecting us and how we are responding. The third is the way in which this will affect our customers, and by extension our business.In response to the first, we have had to take immediate steps to initiate remote working and business continuity plans to ensure our business continued to run seamlessly and our sites remain fully operational. I am very proud of the way in which the staff have been able to adapt to the demands of the time, especially our technical teams in the field, to ensure that our services have been consistent. It is a testament to their commitment to ensuring that our customers stay connected during this period.
On the second area of focus, the telecoms sector as a whole has experienced unprecedented demand for our services, particularly data services since the lockdown began. The more people are obliged to stay at home, the more they want to use voice and data services to stay connected. As stated earlier, we had to quickly transit to remote working and reorganized the way in which we service and maintain our sites. The wider infrastructure has had to be retooled to meet new levels of network usage. To meet this spike in demand, we are investing to ensure that the capacity needed is consistently available.
Thirdly, the sad reality is that a prolonged lockdown and the associated damage on the economy means that there will be significant impact on the disposable income of Nigerians, and this will affect their ability to pay for services. It is a simple fact that a great majority of Nigerians live at a subsistence level and need to engage in daily enterprise to earn income; a lockdown means that many of them will stop earning and so stop being able to pay for basic necessities. We have to recognise this, and alongside government seek to ensure that palliatives are in place. Because while the restrictions may pose some difficulties we believe it is the best weapon we have against the unbridled spread of the virus and guarantee a fit and healthy citizenry who can contribute towards economic recovery when this situation abates.
- What support is MTN rendering to the government and subscribers at this time?MTN has adopted a phased approach to our COVID-19 response and we have already announced the first phase of support, which focuses on our employees, systems, processes and structures to ensure that the services we provide remain available to our customers, despite the lockdown. We recognise that our biggest contribution will be to ensure that everyone remains connected to each other and that government, private sector organisations and media outfits cannot function well without strong and efficient telecommunications services during this period. We have taken the necessary steps to ensure they remain available, while ensuring our staff are well protected. ICT infrastructure underpins the ability of critical sectors of the economy such as health, financial services, security, transportation, food supply chains and media organisations to function effectively.
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 sector to ensure they can efficiently carry out their duties. We have therefore partnered with the NCDC to provide its staff with access to telephone sets, voice and data services to co-ordinate their response efficiently. The NCDC is at the frontline of our response and needs to be given every support to help contain COVID-19.
Our partnership with the NCDC also includes a channel enabling the SMS distribution of health information to all of our subscribers as needed as well as the provision of 100mb of data per day for subscribers seeking information on a number of key websites.
- What of support to State GovernmentsYes, we have also provided support to State Governments and the Nigerian Governors Forum to ensure they can stay connected during this unusual period. One of the most challenging aspects of an epidemic in the digital age is the ability to access reliable, validated information about the nature of the epidemic and how to protect the people. We have therefore provided them some of the data they need to appropriately target responses in their states as well as continue to deliver governance obligations remotely.
We also know that many Nigerians are voluntarily complying with the government’s order to stay at home and we commend them for it. In order to ensure that all our subscribers, most importantly those in the most vulnerable situations, are able to continue to communicate with their loved ones and support networks, we are providing every subscriber with up to 300 free SMS messages per month.
- Other interventionsWe recognize that uninterrupted access to telecommunications services is only one aspect of the solution that Nigeria needs and that access to good healthcare to fight the COVID-19 is also vital. That is why we committed N500 million to procure and provide healthcare facilities to support COVID-19 containment initiatives across Nigeria as needed. Some of the funds will be allocated to the acquisition of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers, while the balance will also be allocated.
As you may be aware, the Central Bank of Nigeria’s CACOVID-19 initiative has brought together private sector individuals and companies to pool funds together that will be used in the wider fight against COVID-19 including the provision of isolation centers across the country among other initiatives. The level of support that has been mobilized in a very short period of time is commendable. As part of that coalition, we have committed one billion Naira to the CACOVID-19 Fund. We believe that when like-minded people are able to collaborate and pool resources to achieve scale, the more effective the interventions will be.
As I mentioned, we intend to continue to review and expand some of our existing commitments. We are already discussing with NCDC about where further support is most needed and we are also deepening our support for the NGF using the data that we have access to, in order to help them understand vulnerabilities and needs.
- Has MTN experienced increased data traffic during this period? By what percentage?Oh Yes, as I have mentioned, the pressure on our network has increased substantially as more and more people use data and voice services while at home. While we all operate a redundancy regimen that allows us to ensure service during spikes in traffic, none of our networks are built to handle the type of surge that subsists over a long period of time. We can’t give you a specific percentage but demand has definitely increased.
- What is MTN doing to ease congestion on its network and ensure good quality hitch-free regular and emergency communication services during this period?We are investing more resources to try and ensure that more capacity is in place, while being circumspect and cautious about the level of traffic we accommodate on the network. This is not just a decision peculiar to us, but is an approach we are working on alongside the NCC and other operators, all of whom are in the same position and are adopting the same approach. Collectively we are exploring network infrastructure sharing opportunities with other operators (with the active support of the NCC). The NCC has also been quite proactive in providing additional backhaul (E-Band) spectrum to support easing congestion issues.
I also think it is important to acknowledge that this challenge is not limited to Nigeria. It is universal across the globe. In parts of Europe for example, we have seen operators approach content providers like Netflix to reduce their volume of traffic to prevent network congestion issues and we are constantly looking at other markets, as well as Nigeria’s specific circumstances, to tailor our response.
- There are calls by Nigerians for a reduction on data prices during this period as was done by MTN in South Africa. Is the company considering this?There are two important issues here. The first is the specific context of data pricing during COVID-19, and the second is the comparison with South Africa.
In response to the first, we know that people want to use more airtime and data during this time, but we must ensure that the overall network capacity is not exceeded. If we provide free or cheaper access to voice and data services, the usage level would go up accordingly. We are obliged to ensure we find the optimal balance between enhanced access and network stability.
We have recently announced that all our subscribers will be given 300 free SMS per month, and I suspect that the importance of this gesture may not have been fully appreciated. The vast majority of our customers are not smart phone users. MTN has over 64 million subscribers, of which a significant number may not be active data users. Most of them just have basic feature phones. So while free access to SMS services might not be what some customers want, but it has been highly appreciated by millions of subscribers who continue to use it as their primary means of communication. As with the wider response, I think it is this large community of feature phone users we have decided to offer our help first, majority of which belong to the vulnerable groups in the economy.
Regarding the comparison with South Africa, I think it is important to understand what the true situation is. MTN SA did not reduce data rates in response to COVID-19. MTN SA took that step in compliance with a previous directive from its industry regulator following a study on data prices. All operators in SA were directed to lower data rates as an outcome of the market/competition study. Comparative studies have shown that despite operating environment challenges, prices in Nigeria are comparatively lower than in neighboring countries and are actually cheaper today than even the new rates implemented in South Africa.
The price of telecom services in Nigeria are regulated and determined by the regulator based on a number of variables, for example spectrum and equipment costs on which services are delivered. It is also important to understand that the cost of keeping the network up during these times is probably higher than during ‘business as usual’ times due to increased traffic patterns and user demands driven by the sit-at-home order.
- Did the company pledge N1bn to the government?Yes, as I said earlier, MTN has committed N1 billion to the CACOVID-19 fund as part of a wider set of contributions to the government and private sector response to COVID-19. Our support and contributions have been far in excess of this amount and we are happy to continue to be of help in the effort to fight this pandemic.
- MTN conducted the trial of 5G last year. What was the outcome of the trial?Findings from the trials have been shared with the NCC who are evaluating it and will make pronouncements based on its findings in due course.
- Did you discover any impact of 5G on human health during the trial?The trials were conducted alongside the NCC who monitored the impact on health alongside other metrics. As they have recently stated, the reports are now being reviewed and will be submitted to the Federal Government subsequently.
Globally, the impact of 5G on health has been tested, as well as the wider impact it has on telecommunications services. A good place to look is the result of a recent study by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, 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 Organisation (WHO). 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.
It may be of interest to state that the WHO through a statement last Friday, 10th April, debunked the ridiculous fallacy linking COVID-19 with 5G saying that viruses cannot travel on radio waves or mobile networks, saying that COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. WHO confirmed that COVID-19 was spreading in many countries that did not have 5G mobile networks.
- Are there regulations governing the deployment of 5G technology and ensures they are safe for use by humans?No telecoms technology or infrastructure can be deployed without approval from the NCC. In this regard, the NCC acts based on global standards which have been tested and affirmed by reputable authorities for human interaction without adverse impact.
- Has the company deployed 5G technology for use in the country?Let me seize this opportunity to state emphatically that there no 5G systems anywhere in our network. In Q4, 2019 MTN conducted a series of tests of 5G technology in Nigeria, alongside the Nigerian Communications Commission and the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy. These tests were limited in nature and have since been decommissioned. They were run to demonstrate the capabilities of 5G and explore its applications.
MTN has no 5G technology on its network today. As the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy and the NCC have both recently confirmed, no licencing regime currently exists to do so. 5G, like all new technologies, must go through a rigorous process of testing and trials before its approval and introduction.
- There are videos circulating online showing the laying of fibre cables in some parts of Lagos. Are these cables related to 5G network?Not at all. Optic fibre cables are like digital highways that carry data from one point to another. There is no rollout of 5G, I repeat, no roll out of 5G in Nigeria as I have just said. What people are seeing regarding laying of optic fibre cable may be associated with expanding intra-city fibre networks for improving broadband services. Or may just be people at work repairing and maintaining existing installations which may include replacing stolen or damaged cables etc. These are essential to ensuring we are able to keep you connected most especially at this difficult time.
- The Nigerian National Broadband Plan has just been launched and there are targets to be met by the third and fourth quarter of the year. Are you envisaging a setback as a result of the pandemic?At this point, we can’t predict the wider consequences of COVID-19, but we are focused on working to achieve the objectives of the national broadband plan and from the consumption pattern we are already witnessing, the need for reliable high speed broadband has increased.
- When will the planned MTN share sale to the public likely commence?As I am sure you can understand, we are currently focused exclusively on ensuring the well-being of our employees, uninterrupted service provision to our customers and support for government interventions on COVID-19.
Having said that, nothing has changed with regards to our previously stated commitment to broaden the Nigerian shareholder base and increase the free float at the NSE to 35% over time. This is a natural step in the evolution of the company and we want to offer as many Nigerians as possible, the chance to participate in the success of the company.
The timing remains heavily dependent on market conditions. As soon as we are in a position to provide further information, we will do so.
- Final words:Let’s us all continue to observe and support all instructions and health guidelines to limit exposure to COVID-19.