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Terrorism: The new frontier for telecoms sector

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By Prince Osuagwu

The entire ICT sector was massively shaken, last week when the news broke of the attack on telecom operators’ base stations and other installations by persons suspected to be terrorists.

At least, 26 mobile phone masts belonging to operators MTN, Glo, Airtel, Etisalat, Multilinks, and telecom infrastructure provider, Helios Towers were targeted and destroyed across northern Nigeria by the assailants. The terrorists, had earlier in the year issued a warning that it would attack telecommunications installations because operators were assisting security operatives in tracking its members.

Mobile phone masts
They seemed to have made good the threat, as young men armed with guns and bombs hit mobile phone masts in northern Nigerian cities of Kano, Maiduguri, Gombe, Bauchi and Potiskum in two consecutive days of coordinated attacks.

A statement purportedly issued by Boko Haram and signed by Abul-Qaqa, admitted responsibility for the bombing of telecommunication facilities in Borno, Yobe, Kano and Bauchi States. It warned that the attacks would continue on telecom facilities.

Many stakeholders and industry analysts have expressed concern at this turn of events, especially at a time the operators are ramping up efforts to significantly improve the quality of service available to customers in the sector. MTN in an official reaction said the attacks had caused service challenges in parts of the north as sensitive hub sites were affected.

According to the company’s Corporate Services Executive, Mr. Akinwale Goodluck, “we confirm that like all the other major telecommunication operators, some of MTN’s installations in Northern Nigeria have been damaged by unknown persons.  As far as we are aware, there were no fatalities as a result of these attacks and we are receiving full co-operation from the relevant government security agencies”.

Grave dangers
Also, chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria, (ALTON), Engr. Gbenga Adebayo has equally spoken of the grave consequences this latest development has on the ongoing efforts to raise service quality levels across the industry, raising alarm that it could arrest the pace of growth in the sector and set the industry back substantially, as money that could have been used for building more base stations will now be used for replacements.

He said: “when a base station is put out of service, often the implications go farther than the immediate environment. And this is one of the things we have been telling agencies of government which take delight in shutting down operators’ base stations. There are base stations which are hubs for an entire region. When it is out of commission, the entire region is blacked out. It’s as simple of that.

Transmission outages
And even for the other ones, the way they are planned sometimes, they are meant to be inter-dependent. Damage to one Microwave Tower will often affect several others in line of sight, causing widespread transmission outages affecting subscribers and QoS.

In essence, damage to an installation can actually have ripple effect on service quality nationwide. These are the real dangers of this sort of ugly development, and a reason why we must quickly nip it in the bud.”

Adebayo however denounced reports making the rounds that operators have threatened to wind down operations in affected areas. According to him, “there was no time we threatened to wind down operations in affected areas. As a matter of fact, after our meeting at the weekend, we resolved to continue to provide services particularly as we received assurance from government that the facilities would be on 24 hour surveillance at every region”.

However, he revealed that it may take a little time for services would be restored in those areas because “we will have to do thorough checks and proper audit of the extent of damage. Again, you know that no operator was prepared for this and telecom facilities are not bought and kept in a store like spare parts. So it may take some time for service restoration in the affected areas. But we did not resolve to discontinue provision of services at any time”

A systems engineer with one of the operators also spoke to this reporter on the issue, corroborated Adebayo. He said that the biggest tragedy of this latest development was that the long list of challenges confronting operators had been expanded by yet another debilitating one.

“Already, operators are operating under unbelievably challenging environment. Many people do not really appreciate the kind of problems operators contend with on a consistent basis in order to ensure that service is provided to telecom users 24 hours. We were actually hoping for some relief, and now, terrorism has now joined the long list”.

Pre-existing challenges that the operators have variously complained about before now include inadequate power from the national grid, which has forced them to make alternative arrangements at all their base stations, theft and vandalism of equipment, sabotage, multiple regulation and multiple taxation.

Indeed violent attacks had been carried out on telecom facilities before but only by people who were intent on stealing from the installations. In one of such attacks on MTN’s base station in Aba, Abia State in 2010, six men working on the site were killed by robbers.

Now, terrorism brings a new dimension to the pre-existing security challenges, as entire base stations are blown away with bombs and other incendiary devices, wasting millions of naira worth of investment in the process.

Analysts estimate that a base station may cost anything between $250,000 and $1m to build, depending on location and other factors. A rough estimate of the damage already done is put at over a trillion naira. This money that ought to go into expanding and optimising existing infrastructure will now go into replacing the damaged facilities.

Protecting telecom infrastructure
Industry watchers are not finding the development funny. For former president of ATCON and CEO Teledom, Dr Emmanuel Ekuwem, “the tragedy of this development is the difficulties it will impose on the people of the entire northern region before the operators are able to rebuild their destroyed infrastructure. We are talking about this issue because it is replaceable without causing national calamity.

“What if any of the bank’s data database infrastructure was blown out by cyber terrorists, do you know what a national tragedy it would be, when proper accounts of people’s money would no longer be traceable? I only wish that the operators would return services to the poor natives who are now suffering for the problem caused by a few disgruntled elements” he added.

President of ATCON, Engr Lanre Ajayi also shared the same sentiments with Ekuwem. For him, “until the government makes telecom facilities, critical national infrastructure and provide tight security for them, these ugly incidents may continue to happen. But now, everybody including the operators, common people and even the terrorists are suffering the fatalities of this action. That is why it should not be left as the burden of the operators alone. Time to look at these issues differently is now”

Meanwhile, an economist and Lagos based social commentator, Mr. Bassey Umoren had decried the development, urging all stakeholders to rise in unison against anything that threatens the only performing sector of the economy.

“Telecom has become the cash cow of everybody, from the local government to the Federal Government. In fact, the Nigeria telecommunications fact sheet released by the United States Embassy in Nigeria in October 2011, noted that the ICT sector is the fastest-growing and most robust sector of the Nigerian economy, contributing more than the manufacturing, banking and solid minerals sectors combined,” Umoren said.

How telecom benefits the economy
Indeed, a study by London-based research firm, Pyramid Research, indicated that revenues generated by the telecoms industry amounted to $8.6 billion in 2010 and has maintained a steady growth ever since. The firm predicts in the report that the revenues will hit $11 billion (N1.7 trillion) by 2013.  Chunks of the revenues have significantly boosted the receipts of many government agencies through tax and levies paid by the operators.

Other beneficiaries of telecom sector’s buoyancy include National Lottery Regulatory Commission, the Consumer Protection Council, state and local governments, which impose all manner of levies on the operators, etc.  The sector has in the last 11 years become the darling of investors, attracting more than US $18 billion by the end of 2009, from a total private sector investment of about US$50 Million in 1999, according to the Executive Vice Chairman, (EVC) of NCC, Dr Eugene Juwah.

Juwah said more than N300 billion was contributed to the coffers of the federal government within that time frame, through frequency spectrum sales, enabling government to plough back revenues earned from the sector for provision of development infrastructure at the various levels of government.

The percentage share of GDP from the sector rose from 0.06 percent in 1999 to 2.39 percent by 2007; moved up to 2.90 percent in 2008, and 3.66 in 2009. By 2010, ICT had contributed 8.2 percent to the nation’s GDP. The industry’s FDI currently stands at $25bn.

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