As 70% broadband penetration target journey begins

President Muhammadu Buhari, last Thursday, commissioned the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC)’s Communications & Digital Economy Complex (CDEC) located at the Mbora District of Abuja.
    
The edifice, whose completion and furnishing was implemented under Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, as the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC) of NCC, has been described by stakeholders, who attended the commissioning, as structure that would serve as a coordinating hub for the digital economy activities of the Federal Government.
   
During the commissioning, President Muhammadu Buhari unveiled the new National Broadband Plan (NBP) 2020 -2025 for the country. The unveiling, according to stakeholders, thus, marked the beginning of another race for Nigeria for achievement of more pervasive broadband connectivity across the nooks and crannies of the country.

Other projects flagged off by the President, as part of initiatives lined up during the commissioning, include the NCC’s Emergency Commission Centre (ECC), 18 of which have been implemented in 17 states and the Federal Capital Territory, as well as the launching of the 112 Emergency Communication Number, which is now very useful to Nigerians to report any emergency incidents at this period of the coronavirus contagion. The President also launched the National Innovation and Entrepreneurship Training, an initiative of the supervising Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

Assessing current connectivity 
Meanwhile, of all these projects, the NBP 2020-2025, no doubt, appears to be the one that will put the country on its toes within the next five years, with respect to deepening broadband access to provide more connectivity to more Nigerians.

Today, while Nigeria can boast of about 128 million people on the Internet, it has been largely through narrowband, the GSM technology, given that only 73.4 million Nigerians are currently on 3G and 4G networks. The73.4 million figure is equivalent to 38.9 per cent broadband penetration as of January, 2020.

  
Going by the NBP, Nigeria is expected to have nothing less than 70 per cent broadband penetration by the end of 2025. Very ambitious as it may appear, stakeholders believe strongly that proper implementation of the new plan, as against the last one of (2013 -2018) requires the support of the private sector by the Federal Government.
  
Today, across the globe, broadband remains the driving force for transforming modern economies. From USA to Sweden, South Korea to Singapore, not to mention the United Kingdom, availability of ubiquitous Internet powered by broadband has placed these countries on the pedestal of economic powers.
  
World Bank study projected that in low and middle income economies, every 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration would yield an additional 1.38 per cent in gross domestic product (GDP) growth. As such, this presents an opportunity for the country’s economy to revamp if plan is backed by adequate actions.

Driving accelerated broadband
The need for accelerated broadband regime in Nigeria underscored the 8-Point Agenda of Danbatta, under whose auspices, the country deepened broadband penetration from six per cent in 2015 to over 38 per cent currently.

Specifically, under the NCC EVC, Nigeria attained and surpassed the 30 per cent broadband penetration target contained in the expired NBP 2013-2018 set for December 2018. A broadband penetration of 30.9 per cent had been achieved by the country, courtesy NCC’s regulatory activities much earlier – as of November 2018. By December 2018, the country’s broadband penetration has reached over 31 per cent.
  
Hence, it is also expected that the proper and timely execution of the new NBP would fast track Nigeria’s digital economy ambition as being championed by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami.
  
It is instructive that during the unveiling of the new NBP, President Buhari had noted that the digital economy will support his fight against corruption through digitisation and enabling government services.
   
He stated that digital technologies have become a useful platform for economic diversification and that “having recognised the benefits of these technologies, we have decided to adopt the digital economy paradigm early.”

   
It was also believed by stakeholders that the NBP, whose committee was headed by the Chief Executive Officer of MainOne Cables, Funke Opeke, will galvanise the availability more digital platforms that offer Nigeria the opportunity to grow and diversify its economy from the overdependence on oil and gas sector for national revenue.
  
To a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, running a digital economy lies on an efficient and secured broadband networks.

What will accelerate plan?
Commending Danbatta on the efforts of the commission in the last few years towards a broadband revolution, Aluko urged the Federal Government to provide needed supports that will guarantee the successful implementation of the new five-year NBP, especially the autonomy of the NCC.
   
“I think if the Commission must succeed with the new plan, NCC must be up and doing. Most importantly, the Commission should be allowed to work without hitches. There should be less interferences from the supervising ministry,” he stressed.  

     
Also, the Chairman, Association of Licenced Telecoms companies of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said the law that created the NCC stated clearly that the minister must guarantee and protect the autonomy of the NCC.
   
To analysts, for the NCC to have achieved the 30 per cent target and surpassed it in the previous plan, there is no doubt that, given the necessary support by the Federal Government, the Commission could do more.
   
They pointed towards some initiatives of the NCC, which should be supported. These include the broadband Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) licensing, use of Television White Space (TVWS) technology for affordable broadband services in rural, underserved and unserved areas, which are some of the key winning streaks for the regulator.
  
Part of NCC’s target has been to narrow the gap of the number of people without access to telecom services. Currently, statistics from the Commission showed that the access gaps in the country have reduced from 217 to 114 in the last five years. This has, thus, crashed the number of Nigerians with digital access from 38 million to 32 million during the period.
   
Through the InfraCo, the NCC plans to cascade fibre infrastructure down to all the 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) across the county, as the licensees are expected to build the metro fibre infrastructure that will help in taking the about 40 terabits of bandwidth capacity lying in the shores of Nigeria, especially in Lagos, to the hinterlands.

Protection of facilities, funding and Buhari’s directive
Over the years, lack of adequate protection for telecoms infrastructure has remained the bane of the industry, a development occasioned by persistent cases of vandalism, theft of telecoms equipment at sites and illegal closure of sites, among others. This is where stakeholders have identified a greater role by the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Ali Pantami, by focusing on addressing these industry challenges that might encumber NCC’s push for wider broadband availability, accessibility and affordability.
  
According to industry watchers, for the health of the industry to be strengthened, Pantami would need to concentrate on using his ministerial position to tackle vandalism, multiple taxations, Right of Way (RoW) issue and other sundry challenges that can serve a cog in the wheel of progress for the actualisation of the digital economy drive.

  
It is, therefore, not a coincidence that President Buhari, while speaking at the commissioning, directed Pantami “to work with all relevant government agencies to ensure full protection of critical national infrastructure.”
  
Accordingly, Buhari urged mobile network operators (MNOs) to ensure the attainment of the targets set in the new NBP 2020-2025 by giving attention to un-served and underserved areas while deploying their services. It is on this basis that the promise made by Pantami in 2019 to ensure maximum protection of telecom infrastructures in the country comes to be recalled, as fulfilling this ministerial promise is essential for MNOs to achieve robust infrastructure deployment that will result in helping the government to achieve its digital economy vision.

ECC and telecoms protection
Meanwhile, the ECC project launched by the President also has a great role to play not only in enhancing security lives but also in protecting critical information gathering that will help in the protection telecoms infrastructure, which is critical to the life of individual’s citizens. For instance, established or suspected cases of vandalism to telecoms infrastructure can be reported to the government through by dialling the 112 National Emergency Number.
The ECC project has had a long history in the Commission but his implementation got a boost in 2015 when Danbatta came on board in order to effectively support the President’s agenda to enhance the security of lives and property in the country.

According to Danbatta, who spoke at the commissioning, for effective emergency response, the communication has established about 18 Emergency Communications Centres (EEC) across the country. The establishment of ECCs across the country was in line with NCC’s mandate under Section 107 of Nigerian Communications Act (NCA), 2003, “to promote and enhance public safety through the use of a particular number designed as the universal safety and emergency assistance number for telephone services.”
 
Going further down memory lane, Danbatta said: “In line with this mandate that the Board of the NCC, in 2006, with the endorsement of the Federal Executive Council (FEC), commenced the establishment of an Emergency Communications Centre (ECC) in each of the 36 states of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT),” Consequently, the NCC allocated the toll-Free three-digit number ‘112’ as the Universal Emergency Communications telephone number in Nigeria.

While Pantami noted at the commissioning that the 112 Number would help people to be able to reach emergency response agencies during this coronavirus crisis, among others, Danbatta added that the ECC will also help people to complain cases of vandalism of any kind or harm to telecoms infrastructure or other government and critical national infrastructure and property to necessary response agency.

Generally, through this number, the public can access help when in distress by dialling 112 from any of the networks at no cost.

This can help distressed persons access help from the police, the Federal Road Safety Corps, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps, Fire and Ambulance Services. Today, there are 18 ECCs scattered across 17 states and the FCT.

Addressing the funding problem in telecoms
While telecoms infrastructure protection is key, funding will be critical. Already, the Opeke-led committee noted that about $5 billion would be required in the next five years to realise the new plan.   

Also amplifying Opeke’s position on funding for telecoms companies, President of the Association of Telecoms Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, posited that lack of fund to effectively implement all the recommendations in the new NBP is a major concern. He also pointed out the need to coordinate all future infrastructure builds to avoid duplication of efforts and wasted investments.
   
According to Teniola, the broadband plan implementation creates an opportunity for the country to define new areas of development and ultimately fast track the progress of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) industry as a whole in its contribution to Nigeria’s GDP growth and enabling such technologies as cloud computing, smart Internet of Things (IoT), e-agric, digital financial services and smart cities.

 
 

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