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Beginning from today, Nigerians who use financial institutions’ unstructured supplementary service data (USSD) platforms to transfer money from one point to another are expected to incur additional charges for such services.

The USSD services include the GTB’s *737#; First Bank’s *894#; Fidelity Bank’s *770#; Access Bank’s *901#; and UBA’s *919# that run on telecoms’ operators platforms. While there is an initial charge of N50 by the bank, which will be retained, customers who use the USSD will be made to pay additional N4.

MTN had at the weekend notified its over 60 million customers in Nigeria of the new development via a text message which 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 N4 per 20 seconds means that in every per minute, customers will pay ₦12 on each USSD transaction.

Therefore, assuming a quarter of MTN 60million customers (15 million) carry out a USSD transaction in a day, it means that the telecommunications firm could rake in as much as ₦180 million in a day, which could result in ₦5.58billion in a month.

An industry source told The Guardian yesterday that the decision was actually made by the banks’ chief executive officers who are not ready to make deduction from the N50 they charge for the telecoms firms to maintain the ICT infrastructure on which the platforms currently run. Instead, the banks decided to further charge the customers N4, which will be remitted to the telecoms companies for infrastructural maintenance.

“What I don’t really understand is why the banks and telecoms operators can’t agree to share the N50 which is already being charged. They are just there to exploit Nigerians,” he stressed.

A telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, who faulted the decision, said it could be a ploy by the government to make additional money from the industry through the backdoor.

“We have not forgotten the plan to introduce Communications Service Tax (CST). I am not saying this is it, but in Nigeria, anything can happen. It will interest you to know that other operators have long started charging additional money before MTN sent the text message to its subscribers. I just don’t know how they want ordinary Nigerians to survive. They want to milk everything out of Nigerians.”

A subscriber, Akin Olumuyiwa, described the additional charge as worrisome. He called on the minister and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to come to the rescue of the over 175 million active subscribers in the country.

Another subscriber, Nnenna Adanma, said the initiative would not work. “It is disturbing. You know how much banks make from customers? They will charge you for everything—ATM maintenance, current account maintenance, SMS charge when they send you transaction details, and now they have colluded with the operators to force Nigerians to pay another N4, no wonder they declare bogus profits at the end of the year. The question is: where are the services? The same goes for the telecoms firms, the services remain unsatisfactory, yet they want to put more burden on subscribers. Government should do something very fast.”

A Twitter user, @DoctorEmto, wrote: “About that USSD thing, I noticed that @ZenithBank has been deducting every time I use their USSD code to check my account balance.”

Another user, @DonanAmillah wrote: “@MTNNG, yesterday I asked why you sent me a message about new charges on banks USSD usages, you insisted it was at the instance of banks, well one of my banks @FirstBank has DMed to say they didn’t ask you to do such. Can you show some proof?”

First Bank’s response to DonanAmillah reads: “This is to advise that the information on charges that apply when dialing *894# USSD codes is not from First Bank. You will be informed if there are any changes with any of our services. Please also note that First Bank has not increased the*894# transaction fees. Kindly disregard any message to that effect. #YouFirst.”

Access Bank, in its reaction to a customer who sent text messages to the bank via Twitter, said: “Our fees and charges on the USSD service remain unchanged, and all our services are available.”

In a swift reaction, the Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Pantami, has suspended the plan.

In a statement made available by his spokesperson, Uwa Suleiman, titled “Discontinuation of Alleged USSD Service Charge by MTN”, Pantami said yesterday that the ministry was not aware of it.

“The attention of the Federal Ministry of Communications has been drawn to the viral text message allegedly sent by the Mobile Network Operator MTN Nigeria and other mobile operators notifying subscribers of a N4:00 charge per 20 seconds on USSD access to banking services from the 21st of October 2019.

“The office of the Minister of Communications, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, is unaware of this development and has hereby directed the sector regulator, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to ensure the operator suspends such plans until the minister is fully and properly briefed,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, Prof. Umar Danbatta, the executive vice chairman of the NCC, has said that experience of early depletion and rise in data consumption by telecoms consumers are not necessarily results of illegal deductions or sharp practices by mobile network operators (MNOs) but could be caused by various factors.

Danbatta gave the explanation during a presentation at the monthly briefing on short-term Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) by agencies under the Federal Ministry of Communications.

During the presentation by the management of the commission to Pantami, and other officials of the ministry at the weekend in Abuja, Danbatta spoke on what the NCC has been doing in key areas of its regulatory mandate which include reduction of cost of data, stemming the tide of ‘illegal deduction’ of data, addressing the issue of invalidly-registered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards as well as efforts to ensure continuous compliance with the maximum two per cent Call Drop Rate (CDR) directive to telecoms operators on quality of service.

On the issue of data, the EVC said: “The ‘illegal deduction’ of subscribers data was not in the real sense of the word illegal and was also not a result of any proven sharp practice by the operators.

“The reasons for the rise in data consumption and depletion, which is classified by some users as illegal deduction, include the advancement in technology which has led to the rise in applications, updates and services that leverage on this technology and advancement of supportive data infrastructure.”

Other causes, according to him, are increase in video-based advertising content by social media companies which in some cases are layered on free services offered by the companies; auto updates of apps on the phone over mobile data network without any sort of prompting or intervention by the user of the mobile phone.

In his presentation to the minister, the Director, Technical Standards and Network Integrity, NCC, Bako Wakil, said that while regulatory efforts were ongoing towards a downward review of cost of data and improved quality of data services for subscribers, the drivers of the cost of data provision and quality of service in Nigeria were, however, not entirely within the control of the commission.

“These data provision drivers and factors include Right of Way (RoW) issues, fiber cuts, vandalism, multiple taxations, insecurity and power outages as well as site access denial that tends to temper seamless service provision.”

On measures being taken by the commission towards curbing proliferation of pre-registered SIM cards in the country, Danbatta elaborated on a broad-based identity management database solution being worked on to permanently curb the menace.

“In view of the grave impact of pre-registered SIM cards and other SIM-related crimes on national security arising from this challenge, the commission is considering implementing robust identity management solutions to curb the menace as the telecoms sector transits into a new SIM card registration regime based on the mandatory use of National Identity Number (NIN) regulations issued by the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC).”

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