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MTN out of the fire,
into the frying pan

As MTN prepares for a new year boom, it has received a timely Christmas present from Nigeria, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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MTN has turned an $8-billion demand from the Nigeria government into a $52-million fine, but still faces a $2-billion demand for back-taxes. But, as it prepares for a boom in new year’s day messaging, it has sent a confident signal that it will also be able to overturn that claim.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has alleged improper repatriation by MTN Nigeria of US$8.1-billion between 2007 and 2015, meaning that MTN was accused of taking money out of the country illegally through dividend payments to shareholders – with the biggest being the MTN Group itself.

“MTN Nigeria has held various engagements in order to find an equitable resolution to the matter. In particular, a series of meetings were held in Lagos with CBN officials during November 2018,” MTN said in a statement on Christmas eve. “At these meetings, MTN Nigeria provided additional material documentation which satisfactorily clarified its remittances. The CBN upon review of the additional documentation concluded that MTN Nigeria is no longer required to reverse the historical dividend payments made to MTN Nigeria shareholders.”

However, the CBN would not budge from its position that proceeds of $1-billion from preference shares from a private placement by MTN Nigeria in 2008 were irregular. The claim is that they were based on certificates of capital importation (CCIs) that only had the CBN’s approval-in-principle, but not final regulatory approval.

However, compared to the intended $8-billion fine, the CBN gave MTN Nigeria a slap on the wrist. MTN has to make a notional reversal of the 2008 placement at a cost of $52.6-million. MTN Nigeria and the CBN have agreed that the former will pay the amount without admission of liability, thereby bringing to a final resolution all incidental disputes arising from the matter.

MTN may not have to incur even that cost, as it plans to extract payment of the amount from the commercial banks that advised it on the transaction.

“MTN Nigeria relied on certain commercial banks to ensure all approvals had been obtained prior to the CCIs being issued and to ensure the CCIs were properly utilised in the private placement,” the company said in the Christmas Eve statement. “MTN Nigeria will be engaging with the banks in relation to the issues dealt with in the resolution agreement.”

MTN Group warned shareholders that it is still trying to settle a claim by Nigeria’s Attorney-General of the Federation (AGF), for back taxes amounting to $2-billion. It has taken out an injunction against the AGF and the matter will come before the Federal High Court of Nigeria Lagos Judicial Division on 7 February 2019.

MTN is so confident of its case, it hasn’t made provision for the fine. This suggests that it has a strong argument to present in court.

“MTN Nigeria continues to maintain that its tax matters are up to date and no additional payment, as claimed by the AGF, is due, and consequently no provisions or contingent liabilities are being raised in the accounts of MTN Nigeria for the AGF back taxes claim,” it said in its statement.

Meanwhile, along with Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom Mobile, MTN is preparing for another festive season boost on New Year’s Day, traditionally the biggest day of the year for personal messages. SMS is declining in use at all the mobile networks, and the bulk of the messaging is expected to occur on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. The former will boost data revenues for the operators, while a free version of Facebook Messenger tends to make it a less profitable channel.

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CES: Most useless gadgets

The worst gadgets of CES also deserve their moment of infamy, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s fairly easy to choose the best new gadgets launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. Most lists – and there are many – highlight the LG roll-up TV, the Samsung modular TV, the Royole foldable phone, the impossible burger, and the walking car.

But what about the voice assisted bed, the smart baby dining table, the self-driving suitcase and the robot that does nothing? In their current renditions, they sum up what is not only bad about technology, but how technology for its own sake quickly leads us down the rabbit hole of waste and futility.

The following pick of the worst of CES may well be a thinly veneered attempt at mockery, but it is also intended as a caution against getting caught up in hype and justification of pointless technology.

1. DUX voice-assisted bed

The single most useless product launched at CES this year must surely be a bed with Alexa voice control built in. No, not to control the bed itself, but to manage the smart home features with which Alexa and other smart speakers are associated. Or that any smartphone with Siri or Google Assistant could handle. Swedish luxury bedmaker DUX thinks it’s a good idea to manage smart lights, TV, security and air conditioning through the bed itself. Just don’t say Alexa’s “wake word” in your sleep.

2. Smart Baby Dining Table 

Ironically, the runner-up comes from a brand that also makes smart beds: China’s 37 Degree Smart Home. Self-described as “the world’s first smart furniture brand that is transforming technology into furniture”, it outdid itself with a Smart Baby Dining Table. This isa baby feeding table with a removable dining chair that contains a weight detector and adjustable camera, to make children’s weight and temperature visible to parents via the brand’s app. Score one for hands-off parenting.

Click here to read about smart diapers, self-driving suitcases, laundry folders, and bad robot companions.

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CES: Language tech means no more “lost in translation”

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Talking to strangers in foreign countries just got a lot easier with recent advancements in translation technology. Last week, major companies and small startups alike showed the CES technology expo in Las Vegas how well their translation worked at live translation.

Most existing translation apps, like Bixby and Siri Translate, are still in their infancy with live speech translation, which brings about the need for dedicated solutions like these technologies:

Babel’s AIcorrect pocket translator

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The AIcorrect Translator, developed by Beijing-based Babel Technology, attracted attention as the linguistic king of the show. As an advanced application of AI technology in consumer technology, the pocket translator deals with problems in cross-linguistic communication. 

It supports real-time mutual translation in multiple situations between Chinese/English and 30 other languages, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, French, Russian and Spanish. A significant differentiator is that major languages like English being further divided into accents. The translation quality reaches as high as 96%.

It has a touch screen, where transcription and audio translation are shown at the same time. Lei Guan, CEO of Babel Technology, said: “As a Chinese pathfinder in the field of AI, we designed the device in hoping that hundreds of millions of people can have access to it and carry out cross-linguistic communication all barrier-free.” 

Click here to read about the Pilot, Travis, Pocketalk, Google and Zoi translators.

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