Was naming MTN SMP blackmail? – Part 2

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This is the second and final part of the article that explains why MTN Ghana has become a monster sending shivers down the spine of all industry stakeholders, why people think previous governments should have probably curtailed their growth years ago but stopped short of doing so, why this government felt the need to do it now, and whether indeed this government did it for ignoble reasons – blackmail.

MNP

So, as explained in part one, the entrance of other telcos like Westel/Zain/Airtel failed to impact negatively on Spacefon/Areeba/MTN. Then Glo was also allowed in and they sounded like a threatening animal on arrival, but they had and still have nothing on MTN. But prior to Glo, mobile number portability (MNP) came in and the public mantra was MTN was about to go down. Indeed, the Vodafone Ghana CEO at the time, same Kyle Whitehill stated publicly that his MNP strategy was to go after MTN customers. He was very direct and open about it. I don’t know what he did practically to implement that strategy, but that was what he said. Recently, it was alleged that MTN, at some point, sent messages to Vodafone customers inviting them to join MTN. It is not clear how that is possible and whether that is true, but one would imagine that if you threaten to go after someone’s customers, you only get what is coming to you.

Today the MNP platform is very quiet because the regulator is not churning out any information on the trends, probably because some telcos are not comfortable with that information going public. Or maybe because the regulator itself feels the platform is not being used the way they envisaged. But reliable sources tell this writer that MTN is a net winner on that front as well. It was the same with Mobile Money Interoperability. When the custodian of the platform, Ghana InterBank Payments and Settlements System (GhIPSS) shared some traffic figures with journalists once, some telcos became uncomfortable because they were net losers and MTN was the obvious winner. The telcos actually asked GhIPSS not to send anymore data to journalists. Funny industry – every player wants their journalists to have access to certain information, but be denied access to other information.

 

Interoperability

Speaking of interoperability; when it first started, customers of Vodafone and AirtelTigo could easily send money to each other but the customers of the two could not send money to the MTN platform. The reason was allegedly because the two telcos implemented the architecture design provided by GhIPSS to the letter, but MTN had a different design and that created problems. As of today, that problem is no more there, but there was some silent suspicion that MTN did that deliberately because of its gargantuan size on the mobile money front – 94 per cent. That is practically a monopoly. Even without the others, MTN can run its own mobile money platform comfortably and profitably. That is the kind of independence that scares every stakeholder. It clearly shows MTN is fast approaching the point, if not already there, where it would not need anyone to survive, but everyone needs it.

So was it because of the obvious market share numbers, the failure of new entrants to break MTN, the failure of MNP to do the job and the complaints on the interoperability platform that finally drove this government to now do what should have been done long ago?

 

Blackmail?

But for the ongoing court case where a witness for Vodafone reportedly admitted to giving customers’ private data to the government, one would have been stack with the four reasons above as justification for government doing the necessary. However, in African politics, things are usually done based on more stuff than what meets the eye.

Government used a private company, Kelni GVG to establish a common monitoring platform to police the industry players, ignoring suggestions by the players to bring them together under NCA to establish that platform. A major concern was customer privacy, but government promised that will not be affected in any way. But now there is a case in court, where Vodafone has admitted to giving customers’ “private” information to government through the private company managing the monitoring platform.

So how does that concern MTN and what has that got to do with naming MTN SMP? MTN was said to have refused to give out customers’ private information to Kelni GVG and by its huge size, denying Kelni GVG of that data makes nonsense of whatever analysis they want to do with that data. So to pay MTN back, government decided to activate the anti-competition laws which begins with naming MTN the SMP. That was the allegation.

 

NCA debunks

Apparently, all this seem to be just hot air. The NCA has issued a statement and explained that government indeed collected some customer information from ALL THE TELCOS, not just Vodafone, but the information collected was just “passive mobile positioning logs” purely for location purposes, to assist in the COVID-19 contact tracing. The regulator said that data never contained any private information of customers. It also explained that following a court injunction against the collection of such information, the telcos have since stopped giving that data to the NCA, pending the court ruling on June 23, 2020.

Well, what the NCA said is what the NCA said. But a Vodafone representative also said in court that the information they gave to government, whether for COVID-19 contact tracing or whatever purpose, was private customer information. So it is the word of NCA against that of the witness in court. All of that will be determined on June 23, 2020.

But why would anyone suggest that the Minister is using SMP policies to blackmail MTN for failing to give private customer data to Kelni GVG? The answer is not far-fetched. When the Minister gave the directive to telcos to remove expiry dates from data bundles and quit charging CST upfront, she used a subtle quality of service “threat” to whip them into line and push her policy through. On that occasion, the Minister’s statement subtly read that government would also be closely monitoring the quality of service of the telcos to ensure they met the standards. It is not a secret that when it comes to quality of service, the telcos themselves know it not a battle they would ever win on any day. Government always has a way of approaching the issue to give the telcos a bad name. A simple radio or TV discussion for people to phone in and speak of their experiences, will give each of the telcos hell and the regulator will just descend on them. So the Minister has proven she will pull any strings to get the telcos to fall in line. That might be why anyone would suggest that after several governments had overlooked MTN’s SMP status, this Minister just went for it without blinking.

 

Resilience

But let’s stop for one minute and consider the effect of the various policy interventions on the growth of MTN. Throwing in more telcos was supposed to curtail the growth of anyone of the telcos beyond a certain level; but it did not affect MTN because they understood the market and found a way around it. MNP also came in and people started screaming, this is it, MTN is going down, but it never happened. Now here we are with SMP. Well, if the other telcos, and even the regulator had half the understanding of the market the way MTN has proven to have, they would know that MTN can always get around this just like it did the others.

 

The story

Let me conclude with this story. When former MTN Ghana Boss, Eben Asante finished his assignment in Ghana, the Chamber of Telecoms held a farewell party for him. At that party, the new Chairperson of the Chamber, then Vodafone CEO, Yolanda Cuba made fun of Eben, saying that he had been using Blackberry phone and that was archaic. She then asked the rest of us in the audience to help her stop Eben using Blackberry. We all had a good laugh. But when Eben mounted the podium, he gave Yolanda a befitting and thought-provoking response. He said that it would be better for Yolanda to seek the INSIGHT behind his continuous usage of Blackberry rather than condemning it outrightly as archaic. He then explained that Blackberry was the only phone that allowed access to some Apps in places like China and other countries where there are restrictions. So it was lack of insight that made Yolanda laugh off his Blackberry. Eben then said “you the young ones need to be humble and learn from those who were here before you came.” Now that was not funny!

Let me repeat that I am not against naming a telco SMP when all the factors point to that. But just naming an SMP and implementing anti-trust and anti-competitive measures at the regulator level is not a panacea for the smaller telcos to become big. They need to do the hard work. They need to learn the “INSIGHTS” from MTN and do the things that will attract and keep customers. They must know that, in a competitive market, state policy does not, and will not determine which network satisfies the consumer. The consumer decides where they want to belong, depending on what they are getting in terms of their total experience on the network. Stakeholder engagement and how it is done is also key to their progress. You can’t excite high-end customers and give the rest crumbs and expect state policy to make you profitable.

By the way, the best NCA can do for the smaller telcos is to sell the LTE (4G) spectrum to them at a cheaper cost than they sold to MTN. The regulator must put their money where their mouth is. Going after MTN without government making that one important sacrifice would result in COS 90 degrees.

 

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