By Prince Osuagwu (Hi-Tech Editor)
Recently, issues around the 30 per cent broadband penetration target Nigeria set for itself with the National broadband plan in 2013, have been more controversial than any other development in the telecom sector.
The five-year target was meant to accelerate high speed internet and mass broadband access, and as a result, prompt socio-economic growth for the nation and prosperity for its citizens.
At the moment, the plan is said to have achieved over 22 per cent out of the 30 which represents 70 per cent success.
But a few stakeholders are questioning the propriety of the claim, considering that the country still suffers paucity of broadband availability outside the mobile broadband growth occasioned by strong Smartphone penetration in the country.
In a meeting with the Executive Vice-Chairman, EVC of the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta recently in Abuja, he provided a holistic response to the question of 22 per cent achievement, plans to hit the 30 per cent target by year end and possible challenges that may be encountered.
He dismissed insinuations that the calculation of 22 per cent was done by the NCC but rather clarified that the commission neither had the wherewithal to do such calculations nor claim having achieved the penetration singlehandedly since other stakeholders like the National Information Technology Development Agency, NITDA, Galaxy Backbone and other stakeholders were involved.
Clarify the 22 per cent penetration?
A lot of conjectures have been made by many uninformed people about the country’s broadband penetration so far. In fact, some have directly attacked the commission for allegedly having concocted numbers. But whatever percentage is attributed to broadband penetration, is not done by the commission but by the International Telecommunications Union, ITU which has the wherewithal to do such calculations
However, let me clarify that before we came on board in 2015, there was a Presidential Broadband Committee set up by the Federal Government and the committee was jointly chaired by the former Executive Vice- Chairman of NCC, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe and the chairman of Zenith Bank, Mr. Jim Ovia. The committee did a good job in coming up with a detailed five years National Broadband Plan, NBP, from 2013-2018 for the country.
On Page 9 of the NBP, it stated that broadband penetration as at 2012 was between four and six per cent and there were measures through which broadband penetration could be achieved.
The NBP stated that the country must achieve five-fold in broadband penetration, but this of course depends on the minimum and maximum thresholds.
The minimum threshold is by multiplying four per cent level of broadband by five years broadband plan, which will give 20 per cent minimum broadband target and by multiplying six per cent maximum broadband penetration as at 2012 by the five years broadband plan, it will give 30 per cent broadband penetration.
By 2017, Nigeria surpassed the minimum target of 20 per cent and working towards achieving the maximum target of 30 per cent by the end of 2018.
Where are we?
It is worthy of note that achievement of broadband penetration is not the responsibility of NCC alone, but a combined responsibility of NITDA, NigComSat, Galaxy Backbone, including other critical stakeholders like telecommunications operators. NCC and other agencies of government were given their roles to play in order to achieve faster broadband penetration.
The need to hit the broadband penetration target, gave rise to the first phase of licensing of Infrastructure Companies, InfraCos, to drive broadband infrastructure deployment. Without these deployments, broadband penetration will be a mirage.
The licence was planned to cover the six geopolitical zones of the country, as well as Lagos that was also strategically mapped out as a zone. MainOne was licensed to cover Lagos Zone, iConnect, a subsidiary of IHS was granted licence to cover North-Central zone. These two zones were licensed before I came on board as NCC’s EVC, and it was during my tenure that we licensed additional five zones. They include North-West, North-East, South-West, South-East and South-South.
The beauty of the licence is that it is cheap because the NCC is not keen on making so much money from licences. We are building a system that will make Nigeria interlinked and interconnected.
As of today, Nigeria has achieved 22 per cent broadband penetration and is close to hitting the 30 per cent mark.
Our performance shows that as a nation, we have recorded over 70 per cent success towards the main target.
However, to meet the maximum target of 30 per cent broadband penetration, all other agencies that have roles to play, must conclude on the role assigned to them from the NBP document.
Where are we headed?
We have about 190 access gaps as of today. Nigerians living within these gap areas are not enjoying telecommunications services and this is a challenge we need to address as a country.
To address the challenges, there is need for capacity building in order to leverage ICT to do greater things and in better ways. So we need to sensitise the people and empower them with ICT tools that will make them achieve their dreams.
NCC for instance, is pioneering the Advanced Digital Acquisition Programme for tertiary institutions, where we have the highest concentration of talented youths. By the time they acquire the skills, they will be able to develop ICT Applications. NITDA is also involved in ICT training and skills acquisition through its sponsored scholarship programme for students studying ICT related courses up to doctorate level.
The advisory committee set up by government to increase broadband access in the country is on course. The committee, made up of four licensees of the NCC, namely IHS, MainOne, Phase3 Telecom and Broadbased Telecom, and supervised by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo, has deployed fibre cable in the country and plans to lay additional 18,000km fibre infrastructure to complement the already 40,000km on ground. This will push the 120,000km of fibre optic cable that the country needs to ensure maximum broadband connectivity to address challenges of intra and inter broadband connectivity.
Our plan is to make Nigeria a fibre connected nation across all 774 local government areas. Every local government in the country deserves to have broadband connectivity and this can be achieved through additional deployment of broadband infrastructure. So we need targeted deployment across the country.
What are the challenges?
There are national and regional challenges to broadband penetration. In these two broad areas of challenges, there are backbone infrastructure challenges as well as challenges of broadband access in underserved and unserved areas of the country.
At the centre of it all is the problem of Right of Way, RoW. The operators are finding it difficult to deploy infrastructure because of high cost of RoW.
But the NCC is consciously engaging the critical industry stakeholders on the issue. I mean critical industry stakeholders like the National Economic Council, under the chairmanship of the vice president of the country, as well as the Nigerian government.
I had in the past made presentations to the Nigerian Governor’s Forum, while engaging them on the issues of RoW. The National Economic Council (NEC) had also discussed the issue and came up with a report on harmonised price of N145 per metre length in the laying of fiber optic cable for broadband deployment.
No state and no local government is adhering to the NEC report on the harmonised RoW rate, and this is a serious challenge to industry growth and expansion, because state government, federal government and their agencies are imposing high and arbitrary charges on RoW. Even at that, the NCC did not give up the struggle.
At the last National Economic Council meeting, there was a very important resolution that the harmonised RoW rate of N145 per metre length of fibre cable must be adhered to as against the current high and arbitrary charges on RoW. This is a major achievement by the NCC.
Another challenge is that of fibre cut during road constructions in most states and local governments. Again we are engaging these states and local governments on the need to protect telecoms infrastructure during road constructions. We really need a national telecoms infrastructure bill that will protect telecoms infrastructure across the country.