By Prince Osuagwu
Figuratively, the whole of Africa stood still penultimate week, when the organizers of the Beacon of ICT, BoICT awards, announced that the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC was again, voted the Government Agency of the year, in the 2015 edition of the award ceremony. The award was keenly contested by African agencies both within and outside Nigeria, giving distinctive class and prestige to the winner.
However, it wasn’t the award itself that got the mammoth crowd of participants at the Eko Hotels venue of the award ceremony standing for hours, in applause of NCC as the citation was read, but the many rural developments the commission was credited to have achieved through human-interest policies and regulation.
Editor in Chief of Nigeria Communications Week magazine, organizers of the award, Mr Ken Nwogbo, described the commission as “an agency which has over the years earned a reputation as foremost telecom regulatory agency in Africa due to its foresight in catalyzing the use of ICTs for different aspects of national development
“The commission has initiated several programmes such as the state accelerated Broadband Initiative, SABI and the Wire Nigeria, WIN projects which help stimulate demand and accelerate the uptake of ICT tools and services necessary for the enthronement of a knowledge society”. However, if there are areas the commission has touched lives, it could well be in the areas of creating programmes that would have direct impact on unserved and or under-served rural dwellers.
Serving the under-served through USPF
For instance, the commission, apparently conscious of the reality that many licensed operators are reluctant to take services to areas considered not commercially viable, has through the Universal Service Provision Fund, USPF, taken services to unserved and underserved areas of Nigeria. USPF is an arm of the commission established by the Federal Government in 2006 to bridge the digital divide.
Its primary objective is to achieve the national policy for the provision of universal access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT) goals. USPF rides on the crest of the Nigerian Communications Act (NCA) of 2003. The USPF board supervises and provides broad policy directions for the fund management with a vision provide equitable ICT access for all.
Explaining some of the functions of the Fund, its Secretary, Alhaji Abdullahi Maikano told Hi-Tech that USPF has two programmes, connectivity and access programmes, through which it drives development. Both programmes, according to him, are complementary in nature and are calculated to facilitate universal access. Further findings, shows that the USPF in discharging its mandate, released a cluster map of ICT deficiency areas in the country which guides it in providing universal access.
Connecting the unconnected
According to Maikano, the connectivity programme is meant to facilitate rapid development of ICT infrastructure in areas where services are deemed not commercially viable. “Through subsidies, USPF collaborates with service providers to take services to these areas” he added. Some of the Connectivity programmed include Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) to facilitate wireless network coverage expansion to the rural, unserved and underserved areas and communities across the country.
Maikano explained that “Under this project, the USPF provides incentives through subsidies to industry operators to deploy the BTS Infrastructure and associated equipment that will provide access to voice telephony and data services. This is important, since most of the time, deployment of telephone and other ICT services by operators are often concentrated in the urban areas for economic reasons” He claimed that So far, 250 BTS have been deployed across different communities which provides access to about 10 million people.
Backbone Transmission Network (BTRAIN) Project
The BTRAIN Project was conceived by the Fund to facilitate the connection of rural and semi urban areas to the national transmission backbone infrastructure. The project is to address the dearth and inadequacies of fibre optic backbone networks and transmission links in rural Nigeria, which adversely affects network performance, quality of service, expansion of ICT access and service delivery.
The project will help connect the surrounding communities and areas which have been classified and adjudged to be economically unviable with the aid of smart subsidies given to industry operators. About 3500km of Optic Fibre Cable (OFC) is currently being deployed across the country. The expected outcome is to provide a platform for increased access to broadband and other ICT related services.
Rural Broadband Infrastructure (RuBI) Project
Another programme of the USPF which NCC uses to deepen acceleration includes the Rural Broadband Initiative (RuBI) project. It is designed to facilitate wireless broadband network rollout in rural, semi urban areas and towns by extending broadband internet access that will enable end users have access to the internet at broadband speed.
The project will also provide an efficient bandwidth distribution network that will serve as a platform for extension and distribution of broadband internet access in the rural areas at both wholesale and retail and at the same time serve as a catalyst for the uptake of other technologies centred around the internet e.g. e-library, e-health, e-government etc. The commission said it has so far completed eleven pilot RuBI sites across the six geo-political zones. The outcome of the project is the widespread availability of broadband internet services such as internet browsing, e-mail, VoIP and Electronic Testing Services.
Clusters of ICT/Telephony Gaps in Nigeria Project
In 2013, the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF) initiated a project to establish telephony and transport network gaps in Nigeria. The objective of the project is to identify and establish clusters of voice telephony and transport network gaps in the country. The result of the project would assist the USPF in designing projects and strategies to help cover the gaps in order to ensure that nobody remain unconnected in the 21st century Nigeria.
In all a total of 207 clusters were established. Each cluster has been defined and its basic characteristics such as major towns, occupation, institutions, vegetation type among others, were identified. The estimated population of people living in these clusters is about 36.8 million.
This programme comprises grants-based projects that are implemented through the provision of direct access to ICT services by end users. This is where e-library and school knowledge centre projects are grouped.
The E-Library project is a platform for online portal that facilitates access to library materials on wide range of subjects and provides access to educational database among public libraries in Nigeria. The project will stimulate local capacity development in the ICT industry by encouraging innovation amongst users to develop Nigerian version of the various educational platforms in future and also add value to the use of ICT. Users will have unlimited access to wealth of knowledge, educational materials and developmental issues on a wide range of subjects globally.
Each beneficiary of the e-library received 50 desktop computers, 2 server systems with 10KVA UPS, 2 printers, computer desks and chairs, 2 air conditioners, library software, 2 scanners, a 60 KVA generator and, VSAT equipment with one year bandwidth subscription. NCC also said that at present, it has about 74 libraries which approximates 2 digital libraries in each of the 36 states and FCT. Meanwhile it also provided a data centre to integrate all the access point and host a central database for all e-contents like books, journals, vocational materials and magazines from all the benefitting e-libraries.
Schools Knowledge Centers (SKC) Project
The SKC formerly known as the School Access Project (SAP) is an e-learning initiative of the USPF targeted at Junior and Senior Public Secondary Schools in Nigeria. This is one of the flagship of USPF projects. In the past, the project was designed as a one size fit all; that is all beneficiaries irrespective of location or needs are provided with 100 Class Mate PCs, 2 laptops for teachers and Solar Power System to power the facilities and Internet connectivity to facilitate e-learning in schools.
A total of 1,334 schools are said to have benefited from the project making NCC to pride itself as the only agency with the largest number of ICT project interventions in Nigerian public secondary schools
Despite the development potentials of these projects, industry practitioners are afraid that the challenge the commission would have is that of sustainability. Telecom engineer and public analyst, Engr Paul Mordi, said that “the usual problem developing countries have with technology development is that of sustenance. “Nigeria has been lucky that the administrations of both Obasanjo and that of Goodluck Jonathan had given the NCC tremendous support and freedom to engineer technology development.
If that culture of continuity is maintained, the country has high rate of growth potentials. Nothing kills the ICT industry faster, anywhere in the world, than allowing politics, pecuniary interests and ethnic considerations to form bedrock of decisions and policies of technology growth”