The interconnect exchange companies and licensees who have been allegedly accused of masking international calls have denied the accusations made by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC). Instead, they are asking the regulator to conduct thorough investigation before issuing sanctions.
Call masking is the practice of causing the telephone network to indicate to the receiver of a call that the originator of the call is a station other than the true originating station. For example, a Caller ID might display a phone number different from that of the telephone from which the call was placed.
The NCC last week threatened to suspend operations and revoke the licences of Medallion Communications Limited, Interconnect Cleaning House Nigeria Limited, Niconnx Communication Limited, Breeze Micro Limited, Solid Inter-connectivity and Exchange Telecommunications Limited for being involved in call masking. According to the regulator, call masking is regarded as a serious security breach, as it stops the origin of calls to be identified and tracked by security agencies if the need arises.
BusinessDay however gathers from one of the accused that although the regulator had written a letter to the company informing them that a meeting would be scheduled to discuss and find lasting solution to the issue, the NCC never conducted any thorough investigation before notifying them about the intended sanction.
“Masking has nothing to do with inter-connect switching centres. The problem is with pricing between the mobile network operators (MNOs) and the International Data Access (IDAs),” according to the source.
Sources explain that the NCC created a standard interconnect rate for international calls, which was pegged at N24.44k including VAT. At the time, official dollar exchange rate stood at N3.5kobo. With this, operators came up with 8 cents as their charge to foreign partners for calls per minute. However, the realities of cheap call cards and IP-based calls were not put into consideration at the time.
“When NCC licensed 22 IDAs, it became profitable for them because the official dollar exchange rate was N305, but sold at N400 at black market rate. So, the IDAs channelled more international traffic and charged the 8 cents, which when converted was N32, so they were more than able to pay the N24.44k set by the NCC.
“However, they were paying the Nigerian operators in naira (as two Nigerian operating companies), which the MNOs detested, as they wanted to keep their foreign currency. This is when the regulator should have intervened, but they didn’t,” the source said.
“It may be that when the IDAs channelled international traffic, the MNOs with numbering plans put their local number on it before connecting the calls to cut off the IDAs. NCC needs to investigate what is really going on and stop accusing the inter-connect exchange licensees,” the source said.
Tony Ojobo, director, public affairs, NCC, wrote in a statement sent to BusinessDay, “The commission has on several occasions, explained to operators the dangers of call masking as a security threat.
“Because of the critical impacts of this nefarious practice on national security and consumer experience, the Commission is determined to decisively deal with any of its licensees implicated in the scam.
“We do not want to expose the country to any further embarrassment. At the very least, serious sanctions would be imposed on them if it is found that their involvement does not justify license or revocation of their licences.” Meanwhile, the report of the joint Security Task Force that investigated the activities of some telecom operators involved in ‘masked calls and refiling’ has been concluded and handed over to the NCC, BusinessDay authoritatively gathers.
In line with Section 145 Nigerian Communication Act, 2003, the Commission threatened to suspend the operational licences of six licensed operators found culpable, forfeiture of revenues accrued from the illegal transactions and ultimately, revoke their operational licences.
The Commission alleged that the interconnect exchange operators, indulge in conversion/diversion of international calls to local number portals, with the intent of depriving major mobile network operators forex revenue accrued from the transactions while they pay in naira.
In his presentation, Sunday Dare, NCC commissioner (stakeholders’ management), who did not disclosed the identity of the six licensed companies, however, noted that the joint task force set up to investigate the financial and security crimes had concluded its investigation.
Also speaking during the investigative hearing initiated by the House, Saheed Akinade-Fijabi, chairman, House Committee on Telecommunications, said the preliminary investigation also confirmed collusion between the five major telecom operators and the licensed interconnect exchange operators.
Akinade-Fijabi, who condemned the act of economic sabotage, said the House would name and shame those found culpable at the end of the ongoing investigation.
However, according to some of the operators, over 80 million minutes record cases of refiling were discovered by some unnamed licensed operators.
While speaking, Tosin Bamidele, director, network operations for 9Mobile, and Kingsley Umah, Airtel’s general manager, revenue assurance and fraud management, adopted the submission of NCC.
On his part, Ana’s Galadima, MTN’s government relations manager, alleged that MTN as the largest mobile network in Nigeria, remained the biggest victim of the illicit activities, hence pledged full support for the unveiling and prosecution of those involved in the act.
BusinessDay gathers further that the NCC has called for a meeting with all operators and licensees to look into the issue of call masking.