By Omobayo Azeez
In December, 2019, through the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, the federal government revealed its intention to boost broadband penetration from its then coverage of 37.8 per cent to 70 per cent in the next five years.
This sort of agenda or target is the second in the history of the country’s telecoms sector; the first being in 2013 when the country, through the Presidential Committee on Broadband developed a five-year strategy to drive internet and broadband penetration and scale up the nation’s broadband growth by 30 per cent by 2018.
The vision behind the Nigerian broadband plan seeks 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 in addition to removing barriers to expanding services to the mass market for deeper penetration and adoption.
The National Broadband Plan Committee constituted by the FG in December last has answered its first duty call by delivering the national broadband plan 2020-2025 report to the Ali Isa Pantami, the communications minister in February, beating the first quarter end of 2020 deadline given to it.
Now that the blueprint to achieving Nigeria’s highly desired broadband coverage has been delivered by the committee, headed by Funke Opeke, the chief executive of officer of MainOne Cables Company Limited, executing the plan may remain a mirage if certain matters are not first resolved, and as such, this calls for some caveats.
Although, the narrowband (GSM technology) has been able to connect 126 million people in Nigeria to the Internet, broadband connections according to the Nigeria Communications Commission (NCC), as at 2019 was 72.1 million with just 37.8 per cent penetration.
Going back the memory lane, the 2013-2018 broadband plan was frustrated by many irregularities in the sector. These issues include the difficulties facing deployment of fibre optic cables across the country.
It is on record that by 2023, the country would need a total stretch of 120,000km of fibre optic cables but as at the last check in 2018, the country was still battling with bridging a shortfall of 82,000km of the required length to achieve nationwide broadband.
Already, submarine broadband cable investments by private concerns such as Mainone, Glo 1, West African Cable System,WACS and NITEL’s Sat 3, have a volume of terabytes lying fallow on the shores of Lagos while the country struggles vainly to achieve last mile deployment.
Meanwhile, broadband service providers have attributed this to the inability of the Federal and state governments to harmonise the Right of Way (RoW) levies that give operators access to deploy services.
This particular issue has remained a perpetual concern for years, and just recently, it steered another turn of controversy following disclosure that some states of the federation were charging as high as N6,000 instead of the N145 per linear metre prescribed by the federal government.
There are also lamentations by operators over vandalisation and cuts of these cables and other telecoms infrastructure in the country. This is a development that has been impacting negatively on service quality, particularly, broadband.
One of telecoms operators in the country, Airtel Nigeria revealed just last week, for instance, that in a period of six months spanning July 2019 and February 2020, it had recorded a total of 1,022 fibre cuts.
Umar Danbatta, the executive commissioner of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) said in May last year that data usage had quadrupled from 20 terabytes in 2015 to 85 terabytes, indicating that as the appetite for data usage in the country rises, the infrastructure the data ride on must not take the opposite direction; it must also be improved.
In a similar development, telecoms operators under the aegis of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) have warned that to avoid similar pitfalls that stunted the full realisation of the National Broadband Plan (NBP 2013-2018), the Federal Government would need to make funds available, and ensure policies targeted at growing the local market are promoted to bring the new NBP 2020 to 2025 to realisation.
In a recent media chat, Olusola Teniola, the ATCON president, said: “It is clear that the following areas raised in the previous plan have been reviewed and a level of urgency and priority placed on them. This is to ensure that digital economy policy and strategy of the government is aligned with when the ‘solid infrastructure’ pillar is strengthened with specific measurable achievable realistic and timely objectives.”
Teniola noted that the Broadband Plan 2020-25 includes infrastructure, demand drivers, incentives and funding and policy, regulation and spectrum as focal points that need immediate attention by all stakeholders in ensuring a viable platform for Nigeria’s digital transformation journey.
According to him, there is a need for immediate collaboration with critical stakeholders, who are also telecoms operators to ensure the ‘buy-in’ and legitimacy of the proposed plan, and ensuring that this is private-sector led.
Industry pundits have pointed out that the broadband plan implementation will create an opportunity for the country to define new areas of development, and ultimately the progress of the ICT in its contribution to Nigeria’s gross domestic product (GDP) growth and enabling such technologies as Cloud computing, smart IoT, e-Agric, digital financial services and smart cities.
They however warned that all these can only come to fruition if current challenges facing the sector are mitigated, and only then the country can be able to play a leading role in Africa’s drive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) which rides on digital connectivity.