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Why NCC mandated harmonized short codes

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By Abraham Adekunle

Mobile network operators have started using the same codes across board.

It is not uncommon for the elderly in Nigeria who have no choice but to use telephones (and recently smartphones) to write down many codes for different actions they would have to carry out on their phone. This is because every telecommunication service has a list of different codes for actions such as checking account balance, recharging, subscribing to a data plan, and more. But now, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has made it obligatory for all telecom operators to use a harmonized list of codes for these actions.

In March 2023, the NCC directed all telecommunications providers to begin the process of harmonizing USSD codes. The deadline was set as Wednesday, May 17, 2023. And truly, mobile network operators in Nigeria have begun implementing the new USSD code framework that will see all network providers use a unified code format. While the deadline has passed, not all network providers have been able to migrate their services to the new codes reviewed by the NCC.

New unified USSD codes announced after NCC review.

Following a review by the NCC, some of the new codes are as follows: *996# for NIN linkage to SIM card; *300# for call center/help desk; *321# for share services; *310# for checking account balance; *312# for subscribing to data plans; *311# for airtime recharge; *303# for borrowing airtime and data; and *323# for checking data balance. Not all of the four major network providers in the country have been able to fully implement these codes. Users can still use some of the old codes to access USSD services.

For instance, MTN has harmonized all the codes except the one for data plan subscription. Airtel has all the codes migrated except the code for airtime recharge. Other network providers are also expected to follow suit with the changes soon. The transition was made easier by these network operators through detailed messages given when the former codes are used. This is expected because users are used to using the old codes and they instinctively dial them when they need to perform certain actions. Understanding that it takes time for subscribers to get used to the new codes, the prompt simply redirects users to the right code.

The commission seeks to eliminate memorization for different operators.

Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) is a telecommunications system that enables users to perform certain functions. These include actions that have been mentioned earlier. USSD services do not require an Internet connection to function and have become widely adopted in sub-Saharan Africa. It was initially used by telecommunication operators but has now been adopted by the banking industry. Practically all commercial banks in Nigeria have a USSD code. Without the internet, users can check their balance, send money and airtime, and even open new accounts using these codes.

NCC began pushing for the harmonization of USSD short codes in 2017. The commission hired a project consultant to conduct research and spearhead the project. Thereafter, it released a report stating that the major benefit of a harmonized USSD system would be eliminating the need for users to memorize several codes. It also stated that 84 percent of 3-digit codes, 98 percent of 4-digit codes, and 99 percent of 5-digit codes would be free for reallocation once the system is implemented.

Harmonization does not affect banking services.

Apart from this, the commission believes that the policy would stimulate competition among telecommunications service providers and streamline marketing efforts. However, one of the disadvantages is that network providers need to reconfigure their equipment and lose some of their customers in the process. In the NCC’s report on the harmonization of the short codes, a recommendation was made to allow banks to retain their codes as any change could significantly affect service delivery. Therefore, Chairman of Association of Licenced Telecom Operators, Gbenga Adebayo, has announced that the unified USSD codes only cover telecom services. Banking codes remain unchanged.

Related Link

Nigerian Communications Commission: Website

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