After being hit by heavy fines for poor services in Nigeria, the region's largest telecom operators have promised to make investments in their networks, spurring hopes for an improvement in quality of service.

Nigeria seems to have opened the way for improved telecom services after the Nigerian Communication Commission (NCC) fined Airtel, MTN, Glo Mobile and Etisalat a total of US$7.4 million in the last two months for poor quality of service.

All four operators issued a joined statement last week in which they claimed they were committed to providing high quality of service to their customers by continuing to invest in and build networks. The operators said however, that fines will not bring about the desired improvements overnight or offer a lasting solution but will merely deplete essential resources that would otherwise be deployed for network rollout.

"We are concerned that the regime of sanctions could create an atmosphere of anxiety and regulatory uncertainty which is unattractive to investment," said the operators in a joint statement.

The operators said they were equally frustrated and concerned about the failure to meet customer expectations and needs. They blamed the absence of a reliable power supply as one of the causes of the failure to meet quality of service levels. Every single site, they said, is powered throughout the year by two diesel generators and requires a regular supply of diesel as well as security protection.

Poor service provision by operators is generally considered to be a result of lack of investment in network upgrades and has become a source of concern in many African countries where customers are losing money on uncompleted calls.

Dropped phone calls, network congestion and a widespread lack of network availability are problems that plague African mobile phone customers. Several countries in the region, including Zambia and Uganda, are moving to protect subscribers from exploitation by developing laws that will impose heavy fines on operators for poor service levels.

In Nigeria, the four operators said they have in the last 10 years invested 1 trillion Nigeria naira (over $6 billion) and would this year alone invest 400 billion Nigerian naira. The operators pointed out, however, that in the telecom industry such investments do not yield the requisite improvement in the quality of service until well after 12 months.

The operators said they are actively competing against each other on quality of service to win the loyalty of existing customers and attract new subscribers. The operators also claimed that they have been subject to indiscriminate closure of sites by government ministries and agencies as well as state and local governments in pursuit of multiple taxation of telecom infrastructure.

The Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) has warned operators providing poor quality services of heavy fines by the end of the year once legislation to allow the government to fine operators for low-quality service is passed.

In Nigeria, the NCC, not the country's government, is responsible for fining operators for poor quality of service.

The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, has developed a code of conduct that imposes stiff penalties on operators that provide poor services. Zambia Consumer Association Executive Director Muyunda Ililonga said, "the code will help bring sanity in the telecommunication sector as operators will fear being punished."