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Setting a big-bang broadband agenda



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NIGERIA Information and Communications Technology (ICT) sector has witnessed phenomenal growth in the past years becoming the leading mobile telephony market in Africa, in terms of subscriber base and revenue.
The resultant increase in investor confidence led to an abundant inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) of over $32b over the last 14years. These investments provided the financial support required to sustain growth in mobile telephony infrastructure and service deployment in Nigeria.
The growth so far has witnessed a largely restricted to voice telephony with limited impact on broadband. While countries like South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and Morocco, have provided access to broadband services in their respective countries, Nigeria’s broadband penetration remains at about 10% and is ranked 130th out of the 189 member states of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Nigeria boasts huge broadband potential that remains largely untapped, and sadly, loosely regulated. There are high expectations with the appointment of the Minister of Communication Technology, Barrister Adebayo Shittu who is now saddled with the responsibility of moving the communications technology industry forward.
The President of ATCON, Engineer LanreAjayi regretted that broadband penetration only grew from 6 to 10 per cent between 2013 and 2015‎. He noted that this was a far cry from the 30 per cent target by 2018 and enjoined the new Minister to expedite the implementation process of the broadband plan and come up with new ideas to meet the 30 per cent penetration goal.
As at 2014, investments in submarine cable system across Africa was put at over $20 billion, with Nigeria accounting for about $7 billion. However, Nigeria with a population of over 180 million people still has about 52 per cent of its population lacking access to basic internet services. Nigeria has a target to achieve 30 per cent broadband penetration by 2018, with the current level of 10 percent, it is very clear that drastic measures are needed if the country is to make progressive leap.
The landing of over 10 terabytes of undersea cables on our shores has done little to enhance broadband access especially outside the major cities of Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and a few others. Based on the existing data, analysis and projections, one cannot but ask why then the potential of broadband technology remains unlocked in light of the many positive predictions?
This is attributed to the fact that submarine landing stations are only on the shores of Lagos, with no pervasive deployment of transmission infrastructure within the country to carry the excess capacity from the shores to the hinterlands. Other inhibiting factors include the lack of last mile infrastructure which is critical for the provision of resilient broadband services, and the absence of low cost smartphones which can help to drive acquisition and lower total cost of ownership to the Nigerian subscriber.
The projected $10 billion investment needed to grow the country’s broadband segment in the next five years would be driven by the private sector, as projected by KPMG in its report to the NCC.
Broadband investment level in Nigeria has been pretty low due to various reasons one of which is the existence of many players lacking the capacity to invest and rollout services. Critical broadband 4G spectrum resources are currently being held by moribund or sub-optimal operators who have been unable to provide pervasive telecommunications services since they were licensed. These operators in spite of their inability to deploy broadband efficiently still hold unto these resources to the detriment of Nigerians.
The issue of inadequate spectrum is further compounded by the recent sale of a portion of the 700MHz by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation ‘NBC’ to a single telecommunications operator under the guise of providing Digital Terrestrial Services. It was widely reported in the Nigerian press a few months ago that the NBC had disposed of the 700MHz spectrum via a questionable sale to a mobile operator. Concerns were raised on the lack of transparency, lack of publicity and failure to follow internationally recognized processes usually adopted in transactions of a similar nature. Ensuring that a single operator does not have access to all the choice spectrum in both the 700MHz and 800MHz will also ensure that competition is not diminished when only one operator can dictate and set the pace of development.
Review of Spectrum Sale
As far back as nine years ago, members states of the ITU of which Nigeria is a member, resolved that the 700MHz spectrum occupied by analogue broadcasters in most member states was to be released by June 2015 so that it could be reallocated for telecommunication (broadband) services. The agreement was reached having realized that the lack of sufficient spectrum was a material setback to the provision of pervasive and affordable broadband services.
The agenda was to switch over from analogue to digital broadcasting and then migrate broadcasting services away from the 700MHz spectrum which is currently occupied, to much lower spectrum bands where digital broadcasting could be provided. The freed up 700MHz spectrum would then be used for robust and cost efficient broadband services. The surreptitious sale of the same spectrum which was to be freed up by the NBC appears to be an attempt to frustrate the Government’s commitment to meet the targets set in the National Broadband Plan.
With significant growth in e-commerce, mobile money (cashless society) and m-government transactions that are largely dependent of broadband services, the sale is a major threat to Nigeria achieving its broadband targets as provided in the NBP. The sale of the 700MHz spectrum by NBC if not reviewed will further set Nigeria back in its efforts at ensuring the pervasive use of online services to drive commercial and social transactions and thus impact adversely on broadband penetration.