SERVICE OBLIGATION IN NIGERIA
Being a paper
presented at the INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE IN ELECTRONIC COMMERCE AND
NIGERIA: maximizing the benefits of the digital economy.
Restaurant, Ikoyi, Lagos, Nigeria.
PETER CHUKWUMA OBUTTE
Faculty of Law,
University of Oslo, Norway.
OBLIGATION IN NIGERIA TELECOMMUNICATIONS SECTOR
So far, one consensus
amongst the participants in this conference is that Nigeria's Information
Technology is at infancy stage. However, when juxtaposed with trends in the
relevant global market, our situation no doubt calls for a determined
commitment and collective effort by all stakeholders to ensure a sustained
progress towards being part of the Information Society thus guaranteeing the
desired dividends of the IT era while fully maximizing the benefits of a
digital and technology driven economy.
Universal Service has
been stated to mean "a defined minimum set of services of specified quality
which is available to all users independent of their geographical location
and in the light of specified national conditions, at an affordable price".
definition does not admit location, status or income as basis for excluding
anyone from access to telecommunications services in areas so defined.
Member states of the
European Union were obligated to ensure universal service in the provision
of voice telephony via a fixed connection which allows a fax and a modem to
operate as well as the provision of operator
directory enquiry services and provision of public payphones.
The entire effort under
the universal service regime is channeled towards bringing about economic
growth and ultimately, economic but sustainable development. Man has
remained the central theme of this development. Development implies a better
living standard or human welfare. The role of telecommunications as a
vehicle to development led to the establishment of International
Telecommunications Union under the defunct
League of Nations.
The truism of this
assertion is discernable from the relevance and survival of ITU uptil this
day making it the oldest body under the succeeding United Nations.
Realizing that social
and economic intercourse among nations facilitate development, the ITU had
consistently transmitted and translated its objectives through policy
communications to state parties and most importantly, through agencies such
as World Trade Organization.
The WTO recommendations,
guidelines and annexes aptly constitute a point of reference in this regard.
UNIVERSAL SERVICE STATUS
Basically, the universal
service principle presupposes the provision of telecommunications services
to all users. Everyone is contemplated in this regard- However, startling
innovations and rapid technological evolution in the telecommunications
sector leading to unanticipated costs have made it to be only a
telecommunications policy concept which keeps being redefined though without
losing its antecedent or essence in the sector.
Of course, the attendant
politics and complexities associated with the obligation of universal
service occupy a prime position in its continual re-definition and review.
In the light of these
competing variables, the European Commission had noted in 1995 under its
Theme paper in universal service issues that: -
"Universal service can
be promoted simply by ensuring that the defined services are at a price
which allows the provider to cover its cost" without hesitating to add that
"if services are genuinely to be universally available, all customers must
be able to afford both the cost of connecting to the network and the cost of
using the services". In that regard, affordability was not expected to mean
setting general prices at a level which is affordable to those on the lowest
incomes, rather, it could result from combining price levels which are
affordable to a majority of subscribers with specific targeted schemes to
assist low income users or those with particular needs.
The cost of providing
universal service has remained the bane of its true realization.
Against the government
mandate to ensure that market players share fully in this obligation, these
incumbents and significant market power holders (SMP) have consistently
explored means to fully realize commensurate return on their infrastructural
investment being a foremost business priority.
These two highly
irreconcilable factors therefore leave cost calculation schemes and
mechanisms very unstable. The interplay of these factors however makes
government policy interventions ever relevant if the developmental goals and
benefits are to be realized
It necessary follows
that the financing of universal service is a twin pillar of cost as the bane
of its full realization.
In this connection,
modalities and mechanisms towards cushioning the practical financial burden
of universal service provision is continually appreciated.
Effective cost sharing
and financing mechanisms to ensure universal services have been suggested
especially relating to specific local conditions.
systems like the European Union had severally considered options such as
financing through the universal service fund where an account is designated
for that purpose or alternatively the application of direct support from
budgetary allocations by way of state aids.
While the former
anticipates contribution from all market players including the government,
the latter requires greater participation by government to aid particular
operators, or directly to certain customers so as to cover cost of special
equipment or tariff packages for users with disabilities.
In the European Union,
countries such as France and Italy have already established a universal
service fund for this purpose.
THE WAY FORWARD
In conclusion, it is not
in doubt that the rapid innovations which have witnessed this technological
era translates into greater challenges to nations across the globe without
any consideration to their level of development, and as such while developed
nations have continually responded to these challenges with determined
vigour, it is only imperative that Nigeria should courageously device
practical but ingenious schemes and mechanism to adequately respond to these
challenges which will enable it tag along and as a matter of reasonableness
eschew the atavistic proclivity towards rhetoric and prevarications which
usually attend pragmatic means of improving the well being of individuals.
Telecommunications is a
pivot on which development rotates.
In this regard, durable
regulatory framework, sector specific regulations, policies and laws are
Realization of a
sustainable universal service is possible.
A Universal Service Fund
transparently and independently administered is advocated.
The challenges of the
moment are real, but the benefits are unimaginable.
PETER CHUKWUMA OBUTTE
Faculty of Law
University of Oslo,