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N120bn Debt: CBN Wades Into Telcos, Banks’ Dispute

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) yesterday, disclosed that it has waded into the current disagreement between telecoms firms and deposit money banks (DMBs) over non-payment for the provision of the Unrestructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) to bank users by service providers.

Telecoms operators in Nigeria had on Friday withdrawn their services to banks, causing customers difficulty in accessing online banking transactions that depend on the platform. These are transactions conducted on mobile phones like fund transfers through shortcodes, and checking of bank details and account balances, among other services with or without data or internet services.

However, in a statement yesterday, the spokesperson for the CBN, Dr. Isa Abdulmumin, explained that the apex bank was on top of the situation, blaming the dispute on technical issues regarding the definition of a successful transaction from a bank and telco perspective.
He said, “The CBN is very much aware of the protracted dispute between the banks and telcos and has been engaging all stakeholders to ensure an amicable resolution.

“Indeed, it was due to the direct intervention of the CBN (or CBN Governor) in March 2021 that a per session price of N6.98 (including settling any outstanding fees) was agreed upon between the banks and telcos.
“As far as we are aware, since 2021, DMBs continue to collect the USSD fees and remit the same on behalf of the telcos based on that agreement.

“We understand the latest dispute concerns technical issues regarding the definition of a successful transaction from a bank and telco perspective.
The apex bank’s image maker explained that the USSD fees are charged by DMBs using an automated system which bills the customer for a successful transaction only after a banking service is consumed.
He explained further that for the telcos, a successful transaction happens once the customer has dialled the USSD short-code which may not lead to the consummation of a banking service.

“Whilst such truncated transactions are not registered on the DMBs collection platform and thus not billed to bank customers, telcos expect the DMBs to charge customers once the short-code is dialled, whether or not a financial transaction is consummated.,” he said.

Giving a further explanation of the role of the CBN, Abdulmumin said “At a recent meeting of the DMBs & Telco representatives chaired by the Governor of the CBN to resolve the issue, he acknowledged the telcos right to collect all legitimately earned fees due to them and to recover their cost.

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“Following the discussion, the direct billing model was proposed as a lasting solution to the issue. This would enable telcos full visibility of USSD transactions and allow them to charge their customers directly. The feasibility of the model is still being worked out by the relevant stakeholders.”

He described the USSD as a critical channel leveraged primarily by the financially excluded, vulnerable and critical mass, saying the CBN remains committed to ensuring that the areas of contention related to the selection of telco charges for USSD are resolved in the interest of the financial system and overall economy.
However, reacting to the development in an interview with THISDAY at the weekend, the Director of Public Affairs of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Mr. Reuben Muoka confirmed that the commission had to succumb to the complaints of service providers by permitting them to withdraw their services from banks.

It was gathered that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami had called a meeting between the telcos, NCC, and all the banks last Thursday, to broker peace but the banks were said to have shunned the meeting.
The NCC director said efforts were made to resolve the debt issue as far back as 2021, but the banks demonstrated reluctance to pay, a development he blamed on the lack of a signed agreement between the two parties which prevents the telecom firms from taking the banks to court.
He wondered why banks would continue to make deductions from users of the USSD services, but refuse to pay their debt to service providers that have been incurring expenses for the infrastructure being used for the service.

“We know that if they were under the agreement, the telecom firms would have gone to court now for implementation. However, because of the understanding that the issue was being resolved and that all the parties would sign the agreement, the banks refused to pay. They have been on it for a long time but right now, the commission believes that it’s like these people are becoming difficult because these services were rendered with infrastructure.

“It’s like the old days of NITEL when government agencies refused to pay after having enjoyed all the services. At the end of the day, NITEL would not have money to maintain their equipment and people will come back and say NITEL is inefficient,” Muoka said.
Providing further clarifications on the development, Muoka stated that “Banks were charging any amount for the USSD services. They were making money off subscribers. Some of them were charging excessively.
“So we did what we call price determination. When we determined the price for everything, that is, what it cost them to offer the service. That is part of our regulation.

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“So after the regulation, it means the nature of banks’ charges for the service would change, but there were a few disagreements here and there. Then by 2021, there was a meeting held between the Central Bank of Nigeria, by that time they had attracted N40 billion, but they were not paying the operators at all.
“When they started that meeting they were still not paying, so it means that all the USSD services they rendered were not paid for and we all know that banks charge their customers for the service.

“After that meeting, there were other meetings with the Minister of Communication and Digital Economy and the chief executive of the NCC for them to respect the agreement on the services rendered by the telecom firms,” he explained.

Saying that telecom service providers could not have unilaterally withdrawn their services without getting the go-ahead nod from the NCC, Muoka said the commission had weighed the interest of the consumers in the past but that it had no choice but to grant the request of the service providers on Friday because the debt was seriously weighing down their operations.

“The reason why we intervened was that we are worried that if the service operators removed services it may confuse the market.

“They cannot just go and disconnect without us allowing them because they believe it has to be resolved in the interest of the consumers but when it becomes unbearable like this one, there is nothing anybody can do because if they are owed this amount of money which they have refused to pay, you can imagine the impact of the debt of the service of telecom firms,” he said.

Source: Thisday


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