Telecommunications services in Nigeria have been dubbed an enabler of economic growth and national development. While this claim has been demonstrated in many ways over the years, the need to give the sector the needed supports to further deliver on this mandate ricochets in the light of the current Coronavirus pandemic confronting the nation. OMOBAYO AZEEZ writes.
Since its deregulation and liberalization at the turn of the century, the telecommunications sector in Nigeria has grown in leaps and in bound with attendant attraction of foreign direct investment, creation of employment opportunities, and contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country, among others.
All these combined have earned the sector its appellation as an enabler of economic and national developments. Living to this expectation, services provided by operators in the sector have come in handy in driving innovations, automations and ease of operations in other sectors for efficacy.
Obviously, this reality is currently being demonstrated in the ongoing war against rampaging Coronavirus (COVID-19) which in the last couple of months has brought nations of the world on their knees with sheer negative impacts on the healthcare, economic and social lives.
The federal government, as well as state authorities in the country, has enforced partial or total lockdowns in various regions as measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Specifically, President Muhammadu Buhari has given a directive to lockdown Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States, and this is coupled with sit-at-home order by governments’ ministries, departments and agencies and players in the private sector.
According to Buhari in his latest broadcast, the restriction order would last for an initial period of 14 days with effect from Monday, 30th of March, 2020.
“The few confirmed cases outside Lagos and Abuja are linked to persons who have travelled from these centres. We are therefore working to ensure such inter-state and inter-city movements are restricted to prevent further spread.
“Based on the advice of the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), I am directing the cessation of all movements in Lagos and the FCT for an initial period of 14 days with effect from 11pm on Monday, March 30, 2020. This restriction will also apply to Ogun State due to its close proximity to Lagos and the high traffic between the two states,” Buhari said.
Implications for telecoms infrastructure
These developments have led to increase in the usage and adoption of telecoms services by individuals and corporate bodies that have resorted to remote operations given that despite the sit-at-home and lockdown instructions, their operations must continue uninterrupted.
This sudden change in the mode of operations and increase in adoption of collaborative tools directly ride on the capacity of telecoms infrastructure so far deployed in the country, and as such collectively put onus on the telecoms sector to help people connect even as they maintain social distancing and support organizations to still meet their targets even as they put their offices under locks.
Apart from these, access to data services have equally enabled Nigerians to navigate the internet to obtain information about COVID-19 from relevant authorities such as the health ministry and the NCDC to keep themselves abreast of latest trends and emerging facts about staying safe from the deadly disease.
Evidence of this has manifested in the surge recorded in Internet traffic in the first week of the ordered lockdown particularly in Lagos, the economic capital of the country.
Muhammed Rudman, chief executive officer, Internet Exchange Point of Nigeria (IXPN), said a surge in Internet traffic was noticed on Tuesday when the lockdown took effect in selected states, adding that Internet traffic has increased by 10 per cent in the past one week.
IXPN is a centre point for local traffic exchange between network operators and Internet Protocol providers.
“We noticed an increase in traffic and we are trying to encourage our members to upgrade their ports. For Lagos in particular, we have seen an increase today. We started noticing an increase a week ago; about 10 per cent increase in traffic. As more people start to work from home and students start learning online, we expect the traffic to be much higher,” Rudman said.
He said members of the exchange point had been advised to upgrade their port to avoid congestion on their networks. “For us, we have enough capacity to handle the traffic but our members need to upgrade to higher port capacity. Our members interconnect to us on port capacity. For example, some are connected in 1Gigabyte, others 10GB or 40GB,” according to him.
In addition, agencies, such as the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has deployed certain telecoms resources to manage emergency situations in the country and connect people more easily to emergency responders.
Particularly, the NCC’s toll-free 112 national emergency number has been offering succour to Nigerians in the nation’s collective efforts to fight the spread of Coronavirus pandemic.
With it, Nigerians are able to call emergency response agencies or first responders with respect to any issue they may want to report on the Coronavirus or other health-related issues and emergencies.
Already, states and federal government agencies are leveraging the 112 National Emergency Number, whose calls are handled through the Emergency Communication Centre (ECC) established by the Commission across the country.
The ECC project is the brainchild of NCC to enable easy communication by Nigerians with emergency first responders such as Police, Fire Service, Federal Road Safety Corps, National Orientation Agency (NOA) among others, by dialing the three-digit toll-free Number 112.
However, one must not lose touch with the fact that this service and others alike need robust telecommunications infrastructure to work for them to serve their purposes.
Challenges facing telecoms infrastructure
Paramount among telecommunications infrastructure deployed by the operators in the country are powered base transceiver stations, fibre optic infrastructure for voice and internet services.
As at December, 2018, NCC revealed that the total base stations owned by mobile telecoms operating companies increased to 30,637 base stations from 30,598 in December, 2017 across all states of the Federation representing an increase of 6.02 per cent from the previous year.
At that time, MTN owned the highest number of base stations standing at 14,715 base stations; with Airtel owning 7,966; GLO had 7,244; nTEL owned 562; 9Mobile had 148 and Smile had 2 base stations.
According to Gbenga Adebayo, chairman of Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), the traditional threats to the integrity of these telecom infrastructures, including base stations and fibre cables, have been vandalism, run-down infrastructure, accidental damage due to road construction and maintenance work, and natural disasters such as flooding.
However, targeted attacks on this critical infrastructure by government intervention – one which is exacerbated by the multiple taxation system in Nigeria – is now a major threat to the operation and development of the sector, he said in a recent interview.
Similarly, Bako Wakili, NCC’s director of technical standards and network integrity, recently highlighted threats against telecoms facilities and good quality of services while addressing a joint committee at the Nigerian Senate.
He said operators have become victims of multiple taxation by states and federal government agencies; adding that vandalism of telecoms installations by criminals due to insecurity, indiscriminate shutdown of base transceiver stations, hiked right of way (RoW), among others as bottlenecks in the sector.
Propping Telecoms as critical infrastructure
Despite the glaring significant roles of telecommunications facilities in the country, these infrastructures have not been constitutionally recognized as critical national infrastructure and consequently, they are left exposed to the highlighted threats, even as this daily takes tolls on quality of services enjoyed by subscribers, as well as cripple investors’ interests to put in more money in the sector.
Although, prior to the heated point of Coronavirus pandemic when sit-at-home and lockdown became the order of the day, President Buhari, had called on state and federal government authorities to work together to protect telecoms infrastructure in the country.
He directed Isa Pantami, minister of communications and digital economy to work with all relevant government agencies and the private sector to ensure full protection of critical national infrastructure.
In view of the importance of the sector, especially now and in the future, the various challenges deserve urgent attention, particularly in form of collaboration, as rightly directed by President Buhari.
This collaboration must draw its strength from various arms of the government as the executive is need to soft-pedal in terms of multiple taxation; the federal legislature must pass Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) without further delay to protect telecoms infrastructure; security agencies should exude genuine interest in protecting the facilities and the judiciary must not be exempted from the equation.
This becomes imperative in view of future developmental targets of the nation such as commercial rollout of 5G technology, 70 per cent broadband penetration, aspiration towards e-governance, e-health, e-agriculture, e-learning, commercial inclusion, as well as timely keying into the fourth industrial revolution, among others.
The critical role being played by access to telecom services in Nigeria in this era of Coronavirus has reechoed the need to give concerted support to the sector, especially by identifying it as a critical national infrastructure, so that it may deliver more.