Tonye Princewill

May 18, 2012

Land lines: We must return to basics

Land lines: We must return  to basics

By Tuesday Platform
WE often do not fully appreciate the water a stream provides, until the rains have subsided and the streambed is drying.

So it is with other essential resources, some of which we tend to undervalue and even relegate to the junk-heap of unwanted possessions.

This, unfortunately, is the fate that has befallen land-based telephone lines, which ought to have been the foundation of our domestic communications system.

Instead, we reportedly have lost more than 25 percent of our overland transmission capacity and are precariously dependent on battery powered cellular phones—which were never designed to serve as a primary communication system.

I own more than one cellular phone; and, like most other Nigerians, I never leave home without one or two of them. Within the house, a mobile phone is always nearby.

This though, hardly renders  me any less concerned over Nigeria’s reliance on a wireless telephone system—a predicament whose pitfalls were pointed out in a recent Vanguard interview.

What intrigued me, is that the interviewee was Banji Oyewunmi, Managing Director at Hayes Meridian Group, a London-based firm that actually sells wireless communications systems and equipment.

“In all seriousness,” Oyewunmi conceded to Franklin Alli, “you can’t have everything wireless. Everything can’t be via satellite. What we are saying, is that we can’t do without landlines…”

Oyewunmi, whose company is staging a Wireless Telecommunication Exposition at the Shehu Musa Yar’ Adua Centre in Abuja in June (4th and 5th), advised that every Nigerian household should have “at least one landline”.

Landlines, he observed, are not only more reliable but they are also cheaper and faster. “There is so much you can do through land lines,” he advised, “that you can’t do through wireless”.

No one, least of all myself—and certainly not Oyewunmi!–is suggesting that cellular phones be scrapped. Nor am I giving a “thumbs-down” to the instrument itself or contending that the system has failed.

Quite to the contrary, there is a lot to say in favour of the mobile phone. As a politician, I am naturally conscious of communication democracy. The fact that almost anyone can afford a “cell-phone,” makes the system inherently democratic.

I’ve not seen any statistics and I doubt we have any because for us that is normal but I believe that the mass distributions of mobile phones have also helped reduce road accidents by making it possible for individuals to communicate with family and friends and transact business without travelling.

Still another advantage is the role mass communication plays in promoting trade and social cohesion. Unlike land lines, which can be expensive, cell-phones are readily available, without the greasing of administrative palms.

The fact remains though, that Nigeria’s rush to adopt mobile phone technology was largely privately driven. We put the communications cart ahead the horse. The government should have lead by example.

Wireless communication is intended to augment conventional land-based systems—not replace them. People who have travelled widely can confirm that in the same countries that manufacture cellular phones, every home has at least one landline.

It should be the same here. The reasons are not difficult to fathom. In fact, the shortcomings and limitations of wireless systems should be obvious to anyone who owns and uses a mobile phone.

First, satellite-based wireless systems are vulnerable to the vagaries of space weather: Sudden and sometimes cataclysmic changes in the space environment. An example is the coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that follow violent solar flares.

These eruptions send streams of charged particles plowing into the magnetic fields surrounding the Earth. The interaction of high-speed particles with our planet’s magnetic field lines create electrical disturbances that can interfere with radio-wave transmission.

The occasional result is that, during an emergency situation, when time is a serious factor, your call will fail to connect and the screen will flash “connection error” or “no network coverage”.

Space weather, of course, is not the only source of interference. Other factors include problems with the satellite itself, terrestrial weather conditions–such as heavy rain and associated electrical storms—administrative shortcomings and technological failure. I won’t even go into the power related issues. That is for another column.

At the personal level, the maintenance of cellular phones is costly and time consuming. Batteries have to be charged every few hours; and any small mishap can put your phone out of action. Alas, there is the incessant quest for “credit”.

In addition, radio waves will not pass through metal. So if an emergency develops, and you are in metallic surroundings, receiving and sending calls become problematic.

I think it’s time the government takes a closer look at the issue. Just like how sanitation and IGR show how organised a government can be, the provision of basic amenities direct to the people’s doorsteps speaks volumes, devoid of network interruptions.