Mobile Week with GSM

June 17, 2020

Insecurity threatening over $80b investment in telecom sector

Telcos threaten telecom blackout in nine states

Telecom mast

Telecom mast

By Prince Osuagwu, Hi-Tech Editor

Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, says investment in the telecommunications sector has risen to over $80 billion.  The Nigeria  Bureau of  Statistics NBS  also explained that foreign capital investment in the sector rose by 725 percent in 2019 from the $114.43 million recorded in 2018; which was the lowest annual investment in the sector in more than five years.

In its report, when the telecoms industry experienced a significant 725 percent increase, about $829.62 million was invested in the industry, increasing foreign capital to $944.05 million.

The sector in 2018 attracted $87.25 million in Q1; $11.12 million in Q2; $11.42 million in Q3, and $4.64 million in Q4. But in 2019, the industry enjoyed a boost in the first quarter of 2019, as foreign investors invested $32.35 million in Q1; $4.5 million in Q2; N886.03 million in Q3, and $21.17 million in Q4.

However, the country risks losing all that treasure to insecurity if nothing is done urgently to arrest the way telecom facilities are either bombed, stolen or vandalised.

ALSO READ: BROADBAND: Pre-empting Opeke’s report, as telcos suffer fibre cuts

Operators including MTN, Globacom, Airtel, and 9mobile, have been crying out at the rate, their facilities are damaged and perpetrators are left to go scot free.

A reliable source at MTN Nigeria, said the network suffers an average of 30 fibre cuts in the different locations, monthly and that comes with a huge financial burden to replace.

According to him, “the issue of fibre cuts, facility theft or vandalisation is one no operator would be happy to recount. For us we suffer an average of 30 fibre cuts monthly from different locations in the country. They are mostly caused by road constructions or rehabilitations. A few are caused by vandals looking for copper as raw material to fabricate some products. But, these people have also realized that their efforts are in futility because the fibre cable we use today is glass-based and not copper-based.

“So, we can say that most of our facilities are damaged during road constructions. Meanwhile, among all the construction companies, only Julius Berger takes the responsibility of telling us wherever they rupture our infrastructure. Others will do that and damn the consequences. We really need the Executive Order” he added

Airtel Nigeria appears to be the worst hit. Vanguard gathered that the company, just like its counterparts, experiences multiple fibre cuts each time a new road construction is carried out in Lagos and other states.

The telco also lamented the huge cost of reinstating and redeploying those damaged cables which will include paying the street urchins known as area boys, while nobody would be held responsible for such destruction.

Speaking on the issue,  Director of Corporate Communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, Emeka Oparah told Vanguard that between July last year and this February, Airtel experienced 1022 fibre cuts, affecting its quality of services, at the time.

He said it was in addition to several other challenges, including theft of its power generating sets, inverter batteries and, sometimes, the entire base station facilities the network rides on.

Oparah noted that the declaration of telecoms infrastructure as critical national infrastructure by the government will go a  long way in helping safeguard telecoms infrastructure. According to him, 405 cases of the fibre cuts are as a result of road rehabilitation activities by construction workers, while 617 cases were due to vandalism.

He appealed that government should come to the aid of telecoms operators as these activities result in dropped calls, poor network quality, network congestion and poor user experience for subscribers across the country.

Vice President, Network Operations, Airtel Nigeria, Dr. Adedoyin Adeola, corroborated Oparah, saying telecoms installations across the country are repeatedly vandalised, stolen, bombed and destroyed with reckless abandon, creating a myriad of problems for the operators as well as the consumers.

He said: “Telecoms operators are plagued with so many problems ranging from security issues to illegal signal boosters. While the network provider is working hard to restore a fibre cut due to vandalism or activities of road construction workers, it also has to deal with illegal signal boosters, operated by unlicensed operators, which interfere with network quality.

“Then, all operators would have to wait endlessly for the right of way approvals, EIA approvals, and other approvals. Also, telecoms installations are huge targets for thieves who cart away inverter batteries, generators, diesel in addition to the other daily and long-standing problems of multiple taxations, community issues, and all.”

However, Adeola highlighted the efforts telcos are making to remedy the situation despite the harsh operating climate. They include improving surveillance across telecoms fibre routes; proactive engagement with construction companies and communities; and enlisting the support of security agencies to access sites and telecoms infrastructure in flashpoints or troubled areas, among many others.

He also called on the government to urgently declare fibre routes as critical National Assets contain the security challenges country-wide and improve public power availability and quality.

Presidential Directive

Last week, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy said it has secured a directive from the President that security forces should increase surveillance around telecom facilities, but operators and stakeholders in the industry say a verbal directive is not enough. They believe an executive order from the President pronouncing telecom infrastructure as critical national infrastructure, would go much further.

This means that, vandalization, destruction or bombing of telecom facilities such as base transmission sites, BTS, broadband cables and masts among others will attract strict punishment which will not be limited to fines or jail terms alone but could attract capital punishment.

Executive Order

Reacting to the directive, Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecom Operators in Nigeria, ALTON, Engr Gbenga Adebayo, told  Vanguard  that much as the directive signals that attention is being drawn to the importance of protecting telecom facilities, an executive order declaring telecom facilities as critical national infrastructure will solve the problem.

He said: “Well, we think it is a good development in the right direction. It could be part of the Executive order process starting from somewhere.  NCC has MoUs with almost all the law enforcement agencies in the country but the surprising thing is that the same law enforcement agencies are used to shut down  the infrastructure.

In those days nobody dared move near NITEL infrastructure because of the decree protecting NITEL at that time.

We hope the direction is a step nearer the Executive Order.  The telecom sector is becoming the major economy pillar now with what is happening in the oil sector.  We need this Executive Order.

“Again, the directive may not solve the matter. Even when a directive is given you still see some over-zealous law enforcement officers disregarding it. However, ALTON wishes to commend the minister for the good work he is doing, he has done so well in pushing for the reduction of Right of Way charges and also actively involved in the FCT discussion for a better quality of service.  We encourage him not to relax until the Executive Order is made.  All these in place will facilitate massive deployment of infrastructure across the country in order to achieve the new National Broadband target.

Meanwhile, one of the pioneer engineers and staff of NITEL, Engr. Titi  Omo-Ettu, said it could be easy to refer to NITEL on the issue of declaring telecom infrastructure as critical national infrastructure, but may not be too easy to achieve it because NITEL, then, was a national asset.

He said: “The situation in NITEL days is completely different kettle of fish. If you said something was owned by Government then you had stamped protection on it. Even those of us who were workers were protected beyond the limit.

I was travelling around the country on vacation and my car’s radiator got burst on the highway. I just went into the nearby village post and showed my ID card as a P & T engineer. The whole village bowed to help fix my radiator at their cost and also provided lunch for everyone with me as guest of honour. Today it is different. MTN and other operators are not government and Nigerians know that”.

In the same vein, prominent industry expert, Dr Chris Uwaje, says demand for telecom infrastructure to be declared critical national infrastructure is a significant part of the National Policy for Information Technology of 2001 and remained an integral part of the National IT Policy, the NITDA ACT of 2003, and also referenced by the NCC ACT of 2003.

He expressed surprise that the issue could still be debatable at this point in the country’s technology history.

He said: “I have to also observe that even an Executive Order is not a Law, but a directive by a President and can be revoked by another sitting President. We should be prompting the legislators to promulgate the laws as they are enshrined in these different Acts and get the president to accent to them”.

Why the industry needs protection

The 725 per cent increase in foreign capital investments in 2019 was driven by the procurement of equipment. The public listing of MTN and Airtel on the Nigerian Stock Exchange (NSE) was also a major contributor.

Most interestingly, each quarter, MTN,  Airtel,  Globacom  and other  telcos  contribute over N6 trillion to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) annually, despite poor power supply, multiple taxations, and the insecurity that have eaten into

their revenues.

This is even as communications of over 190 million Nigerians are dependent on these networks.