N42bn Debt: Anxiety Over Planned Disruption of Banks’ USSD Codes
By Adedapo Adesanya
Customers of financial institutions operating in the country are confused and do not know what will happen from Monday, March 15, 2021, when they might not be able to use Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) codes to carry out a transaction.
This is because the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), the umbrella body of licensed telecommunications service providers (network operators, infrastructure companies and value-added services providers) has concluded plans to commence a phased withdrawal of USSD services to Financial Service Providers (FSPs) over N42 billion debt.
A statement signed by Mr Gbenga Adebayo, Chairman, ALTON and Gbolahan Awonuga, Head of Operations, the withdrawal of the services is billed to start with the most significant debtors within the FSPs.
ALTON disclosed that the withdrawal of USSD services to financial service providers was mainly due to huge indebtedness to telecom network operators.
Giving the background to the problem, ALTON said, “In order to accelerate the adoption of financial services on USSD, the Financial Service Providers (FSPs) partnered our members to zero-rate the USSD access to end-users, while they bore the cost for the provision of service.
“Based on this arrangement, the banks took on the responsibility of billing customers and paid our members for use of the USSD infrastructure from the service fees deducted from the customer’s bank account.
“Following the issuance of the USSD Pricing determination by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) which resulted in a price review of USSD service by our members, the banks decided that they would no longer pay for USSD service delivered to their customers and requested our members to charge customers directly for use of the USSD channel.
“This billing methodology where the Financial Service Providers (FSPs) customer is directly charged USSD access fees by our members irrespective of the service charges that the bank may subsequently apply to the customers’ bank account is called End-User Billing which the banks specifically demanded that all our members implement.
“The banks, however, provided no assurances to our members that such service fees charged to customers’ bank accounts for access to bank services through the USSD channel would be discontinued post implementation of end-user billing by our members.
“The removal of these service fees by the Financial Service Providers (FSPs) would have meant that if bank customers were charged only the USSD costs communicated by our members per USSD session, bank customers will be paying far less than what they are currently being charged by the Financial Service Providers (FSPs) which in some instances are as high as N50.
“Additionally, the banks and telcos will be applauded for collaborating towards the financial inclusion objectives of the federal government.”
The further said it has been more than eight months since the NCC issued an updated pricing methodology for USSD services for financial transactions in Nigeria, a methodology which explicitly restricted Mobile Network Operators (MNO’s) from charging the end user for the services and mandated the banking sector to enter into negotiations to settle outstanding obligations and agree with individual pricing mechanisms to be applied going forward.
“During this time, Mobile Network Operators (MNO’s) have continued to provide access to USSD infrastructure and our members have continued to pay all Bank charges and fees to access the Banking industries assets and customers, despite the fact that obligations due from banks to telecoms companies for USSD services has reached over N42 billion.
“ALTON members have continued to provide these services because our primary concern is that the millions of Nigerian customers who access financial services through our USSD infrastructure every day should be able to continue conducting their transactions. This was given greater importance when customers’ became further reliant on these services due to COVID movement restrictions.
“Unfortunately, as it has been impossible to agree on a structure for these payments with the banks that do not involve the end-user being asked to pay, the government has been forced to intervene to ensure that a sustainable cost-sharing solution is agreed, that does not disadvantage the consumer in the long-term.”
The group disclosed that withdrawal of services to FSPs has become unavoidable saying, “We deeply regret that we have reached a point where the withdrawal of these services has become unavoidable, however, we remain committed to working closely with the relevant Ministries and regulators to resolve this issue as quickly as possible.
“To minimise the disruption to customers, and with the concurrence of the Honourable Minster of Communications and Digital Economy and the Nigerian Communications Commission, on the huge debt to the Network operators; Mobile Network Operators will disconnect debtorFinancial Service Providers (FSPs) from USSD services, until the huge debt is paid.
“Therefore, our members are initiating a phased process of withdrawal of USSD services, starting with the most significant debtors within the Financial Service Providers (FSPs) effective Monday March 15, 2021.”