Towards end of last year, I was chatting with Eric Priezkalns about an issue that affects a number of African CSPs. I will not rehash details of the matter here but suffice it to say that we both felt that there is a lot that can be done in improving the inter-CSP cooperation. Over the past few weeks, I have tried to get examples of CSPs partnering effectively on this continent in order to influence their destiny and to “shape things”. I must say it has been a struggle to get solid examples.
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that cooperation is to be approached carefully. We are, after all, competitors and will always be – that is just business. However, much more than competitors, CSPs are hugely influential organizations even when standing apart. How much more influential would they be if they identified and pursued matters of common interest proactively? I hasten to add that I have in mind cooperation in the sense of being a force for good and not the underhand (unethical) corporate malpractices like price-fixing. Speaking from my limited experience, in this part of the world (Africa) cooperation between CSPs is only pursued as a last resort.
The regulatory space is a pet peeve of mine. Regulators routinely seem to jump from one knee jerk reaction to another, spewing directives of this and that nature, imposing this and that fine, randomly measuring quality of this and that network aspect, haphazardly copying what has worked in advanced markets and attempting to replicate it. It is of course easy to brush off these clumsy efforts as the results of poor leadership in regulators and a lack of clear vision…but are CSPs blameless in this mess? It seems that for each finger pointing at the regulator, four are pointing back at us (CSPs). How many CSPs form a proper joint forum and approach regulators and break down matters of CSP management into chunks that the regulator can digest? We see mostly such efforts only when a grave matter is about to arise. We CSPs can blame the regulator for being clueless and we can huff and puff as much as we want but the fact is: we are simply not doing much, collectively, to engage with and educate the regulators.
Let’s use a quick example. The regulator, out of the blues, issues a rule requiring that all prepaid SIM holders be registered in the next 3 months. Registration includes getting each subscriber’s full names and a means of identification with a photo. Subscribers who are not registered will be deleted and CSPs who do not comply will be fined (normally some scary figure). In a market that is over 90% prepaid, the CSPs know outright that complying will be impossible. However, now they must explain why they can’t comply without appearing insolent. Consider that this type of directive is usually in support of things like national security and enabling effective investigation of crime. An interesting discussion must take place between the CSPs and the regulator. Now, a flurry of calls and meetings between CSPs take place and a meeting with the regulator is organized.
The CSPs have little chance of winning this – their attempts are ill-timed, disjointed, incoherent efforts at best. The regulator knows little about prepaid SIM activation processes, the roles of the systems that are used by CSPs, the possible data capturing methods that can be applied and how tedious they will be, or even the loss that the CSPs are looking at if they delete subscribers. The regulator has not even considered that in Africa, it is not unheard of for persons of adult age to have ZERO identification documents. The CSPs must start from scratch and during a time when a deadline is looming. I wager that such a discussion would have been easier if there was already an atmosphere of sharing information even without the pressure of regulatory directives. Maybe the regulator would have better knowledge and would empathize with the challenges that CSPs face in implementing this directive. If those challenges were mutually expressed by a united forum, they would carry more weight in determining such things as the deadline, the amount of fines etc.
Frankly, it is not difficult to see why cooperation seems to be a low-priority area. Cooperating with the other guys seems to be a nice thing to do, after you have done all the other important stuff. The problem is that CSPs (and all other companies that would like to provide a decent return to shareholders and sustainable employment for their employees) always have thousands of important things to do. So when does the CSP get time to address issues of mutual concern with other CSPs? You guessed it – NEVER. Or only when the problem at hand is an issue of crisis proportions, which is almost always too late to exert influence.
The lesson for CSPs is really simple and it comes from a Swahili proverb which warns us: “if you see your friend being shaved, start lathering yourself”. The world is not without examples of “the other guy” being shaved (often painfully, just ask MTN Nigeria). It is time we realized that it is not just the other guy’s problem. More importantly, can we put in place ways of pushing matters of mutual interest so that we can play our rightful roles as sustainable businesses and law-abiding corporate citizens? Sustainable business is about recognizing that sometimes it is neither possible nor desirable to really go it alone. I seriously think boards of CSPs should charge CEOs with the responsibility of actively driving industry cooperation and this must be measurable. Not doing so is certainly allowing big risks to persist unmitigated.