The proposed but now suspended N4 per 20 seconds charge on unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) platforms for money transfer transactions in Nigeria, got another spanner thrown in its wheel, as bank chief executives, yesterday, dissociated themselves from the planned charges.
Specifically, the Body of Bank CEOs, which was fingered in the whole process, issued a statement and denied asking MTN to start charging customers.
The statement titled: “SMS (Short Message Service) From MTN Nigeria to Bank Customers in Nigeria on Use of USSD Code,” reads: “Our attention has been drawn to SMS sent on Saturday, October 19, by MTN Nigeria Communications PLC (“MTN”) to customers of banks in Nigeria in respect of the above.
“The message states that the banks requested MTN to start charging customers for USSD transactions directly. It also asks customers to contact their banks for more information. We wish to state as follows:
“That the banks did not ask MTN to start charging customers as contained in the text message. The decision on whether, and what amount, to charge a customer for accessing USSD is entire that of the telco company, in the same way, a customer is billed for calls, SMS, and data.
“MTN is the only Telco that is yet to implement end-user billing which is the standard practice for customer-initiated transactions. This is despite the fact that the banks, working with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), have engaged MTN over a period of more than one year to try and bring down the cost of USSD to aid financial inclusion.
“That the banks are determined to pursue the National Financial Inclusion Strategy of the Federal Government of Nigeria and will continue to advocate that Telcos identify wholeheartedly with this laudable initiative and implement transparent and low pricing model in the use of USSD access codes.
“We wish to reiterate that financial transaction charges are regulated by the CBN as stipulated in the Bankers Tariff and that the charges for financial transactions carried out with banks remain unchanged.”
The planned additional charges became a national issue, weekend when MTN notified its over 60 million customers in Nigeria of the plan to charge N4 for USSD services. The message read: “Please note that from Oct. 21, we will charge N4 per 20 seconds for USSD access to banking services. Please, contact your bank for more info. Thank you.”
The matter heated up the polity in the last 24 hours and elicited swift responses from both the telecoms and banking industry. While the Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Pantami, had asked the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs), to suspend the plan, until a proper briefing from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), also asked Nigerians to disregard such messages.
Meanwhile, MTN confirmed that it has directed a stay-of-action on the charges, as directed by the Federal Government.
It, however, noted that although it has suspended it, the proposed charge of N4 per 20-second session is currently the lowest in the industry, as other network operators currently charge above that rate.
According to MTN, other network providers implemented these charges a long time ago without notifying their subscribers; the banks still deduct an average of N50 for USSD transactions despite the fact that the infrastructure for such transactions is provided and maintained by the network operators.
MTN noted that it would be nice to ascertain if other network service providers have complied with the government’s directive as MTN has done.
Rising in defense of MTN, the Association of Licensed Telecom Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), noted that the N4.00 charges as determined by the NCC, the telecom industry regulator.
ALTON, through its Administrative Secretary, Gbolahan Awonuga, noted that the determination of the USSD charges started via a study conducted by the regulator in 2017, and by May 2019, the determination was issued.
The study on USSD, he disclosed was conducted by the NCC and industry working group (IWG), after the CBN set up a committee that was made up of members from the Bankers’ Committee.
In reaction to the Minister’s suspension of the plan, ALTON insisted that the issue being discussed is not policy, but commercial, to which the CBN also described as an embedded cost for telcos and not a fresh investment that should be passed down to consumers.
“We are confusing regulation with policy. There was a determination on this USSD, even before the appointment of the Minister,” Gbolahan explained during an interaction in a WhatsApp Group.
He argued that the CBN is protective of the banks, but wondered why the telecom operators cannot be protected. “It is not about the good boy, but this is commercial, and the normal things have been done. Operators did not come up overnight to charge N4. It was deliberated upon and a decision taken,” he stressed.
Speaking with The Guardian, Gbolahan said there was no formal letter from the bank’s CEO to the effect that they have withdrawn from the plan, “Mind you, this is a study that we started since 2017. We had also argued that from the N50 they are charging for each transaction, why can’t they consider the consumers and give telcos part of the money? If you take N46, the telcos will take N4, but they don’t want to part with any money at all. But they forgot that this service rides on telecoms infrastructure.
“As I said, this is a commercial dealing, if you are not comfortable with operator A charging N4, you can go to other operators charging a lower rate. Telcos are not a charitable organisation; they are also in business to make money. If the banks are charging with any infrastructure on the ground, the telcos too should be able to charge.”
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