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‘Why Implementation of Nigeria’s broadband plan is strategic to national development’

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Before his appointment as the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy in 2019, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim (Pantami) was the Director-General/Chief Executive Officer of National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA). A graduate of the Federal University of Technology Bauchi (popularly known as Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University) where he obtained his first degree of BTech in Computer Science in 2003, he also obtained an MSc in Computer Science (2008/2009 session) and MBA in Technology Management (2010/2011 session) from the same University. He later bagged a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods from the prestigious Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, the United Kingdom. A Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)-certified professional, Pantami worked as an academic in various capacities. He lectured at the Federal University of Technology, Bauchi (ATBU), Nigeria, for over a decade. Pantami also taught at Madinah University, where he was the first Nigerian to work as a member of faculty at the university. He took up the appointment based on an invitation by the university, shortly after obtaining a PhD in Computer Information Systems and Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods from the prestigious Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom. At Madinah University, he was a Professor and Head of Technical Writing. In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN, Pantami spoke on germane industry issues including moves to enthrone a broadband-driven economy; relationship with the Nigerian Communications Commission and other agencies, implementation of telephone services tariff reductions and others.

You have been driving the sector for almost one year, how will you assess the sector’s performance since becoming the minister?
With all sense of humility, the sector has recorded some unprecedented developments and achievements, which have not only impacted on our national economy, but have positioned Nigeria as one of the major participants in the growing global digital economy. Since we assumed office in August 2019, we have initiated and in some cases, implemented various policies and strategies to ensure that Nigeria is up to date with current trends in the industry.

It started with the refocusing of the Ministry towards positioning the country for its Digital Economy Vision, which led to the re-designation of the name and mandate of the Ministry from the Federal Ministry of Communications to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy.

This was followed by the development and launching of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy for a digital Nigeria (2020 – 2030), the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (2020-2025), policy for de-activation of unregistered and partially-registered Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards, policy on virtual academy, unbundling some parastatals under the Ministry to make them more effective, cybersecurity policy and aggressive capacity building through our various programmes for digital skills acquisition, partnerships and collaborations on both local and international levels.

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The effects of these concise efforts have manifested in the recent report for the first quarter of the year (2020), by the National Bureau of Statistics, which showed that ICT contributed an unprecedented 14.07 per cent to Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This indicates a sustained growth in the sector if compared to the figures of previous years. The credit, however, goes to His Excellency, President Muhammadu Buhari, who believes in our ability. His immense support was immeasurable and we are most appreciative.

What informed the name change of the Ministry to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy?
Well, the name of the Ministry was amended to properly reposition it, capture its mandate in line with global best practice and the goals of digitisation of the Nigerian economy in line with the Economic Growth and Recovery Plan (EGRP), one of the key policy initiatives of the present administration. The amendment was as a result of a policy proposal I presented to Mr. President, who graciously approved the request, which was subsequently presented to and adopted by the Federal Executive Council. The new mandate legally gives impetus to the Ministry to deliver its broad vision and keeps the country abreast of emerging trends in the global community. So, the re-designation was done to position Nigeria for the gains of the digital economy as ‘communications’ captured just the channels. The term ‘communications’ alone became inadequate in describing the essence of the new vision that embraces the content, as well as the utilisation of both channel and content to achieve the central focus of the Ministry to migrate the nation to a digital economy. This is particularly significant as it enables Information and Communication Technology (ICT) – which is the most diverse and fastest growing sector – to mobilise other sectors and align with the ERGP of the Federal Government, as stated earlier. In a way, Ministry of ‘Communications and Digital Economy’ is quite fitting, as it also ensures that the name of the Ministry captures its objective in keeping with global best practices.

You spoke earlier on the two major policy documents that appear like blueprints for achieving the new mandate of the Ministry. These are the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) and the National Broadband Plan (2020-2025). Can you provide highlights of these two policy documents?
Today, a digital economy has been widely accepted as the single most important driver of innovation, competitiveness and economic growth. This explained why the new mandate of the Ministry is the development of the economy, leveraging technology, in line with the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) of the Federal Government.

Following the re-designation, the President directed that we should develop and implement a national digital economy strategy. We vigorously pursued this and successfully completed it in time. You may recall that President Muhammadu Buhari, GCFR, unveiled the NDEPS on November 28, 2019, during the opening ceremony of the 2019 e-Nigeria International Conference, Exhibition and Awards. All other Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) are connected to the strategy in view of the centrality of ICT to development in other sectors of the economy and the role of the Ministry is to coordinate the implementation of the policy and the strategy.

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The implementation of the strategy had started. By the end of the decade, the Federal Government expects every Nigerian to have connected with and expressed the goal of digital Nigeria by being computer literate, owning a digital device (which the agencies in the Ministry have been assisting to facilitate), having access to the Internet, owning a bank account that can be accessed and operated digitally and online. Beyond financial services, the Federal Government hopes to see majority of the citizens undertake many activities electronically.

There are eight pillars of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS). The first of the pillars is Developmental Regulation, which is conceived as regulation that promotes and supports development. This means online communications and transactions should focus on and encourage digital economy and ensure taxes and prices come down because, when prices come down, demand goes up and entrepreneurs make more profit by sheer increase in the volume of trade. It is simple economics.

The second mainstay of the digital economy policy is Digital Literacy and Skills; digital economy is unrealisable without skills. Different sections of the population are targeted for training and retraining, including women, youths, journalists, civil servants and those, who are certified but unemployed. We are optimistic that, at least, 90 percent of Nigerians will be digitally literate by the end of the decade, as all agencies in the Ministry will be involved in series of training and retraining as much as the financial circumstances of the nation permit.

Solid Infrastructure is the third pillar of the policy and this will ensure availability of robust data centres and deals with broadband expansion. The National Broadband Plan 2020-2025 is expected is to ensure that all unserved and underserved areas have access to broadband services. The Federal Government and the Ministry are encouraging many institutions to host their data in Nigeria and we will continue this advocacy.

The fourth policy pillar of NDEPS is Service Infrastructure, which is focused on facilitating digitisation of activities that will find deeper expression in e-health, e-agriculture and other automated transactions. We realised that that automation is connected to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). For instance, studies by International
Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other development agencies have revealed that 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration could increase GDP by up to 2.5 per cent.

The fifth pillar, Digital Services Development and Promotion, is also to ensure increased digitisation of activities, while the sixth pedestal of the digital economy policy is Soft Infrastructure, which focuses on cybersecurity awareness to ensure security of activities in the cyberspace.

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The penultimate pillar of the policy is Digital Society and Emerging Technologies. The policy is conceptualised to encourage start-ups to support our innovators, so, they can deploy their inventions in Nigeria. So, we envisioned that Nigeria would explore, in quantifiable terms, cloud computing, nanotechnology, Fifth Generation (5G) communications, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics. With 5G, virtual surgery is possible in Nigeria. So, digital innovation and digital entrepreneurship are particularly important in ensuring increase in Nigeria’s GDP as well as in ensuring that the gains of the digital economy are mapped to indices of well-being in the lives of ordinary citizens.

The last pillar is the indigenous content promotion and adoption. This pillar will provide a policy framework that gives preference to digitally skilled Nigerians for government-funded projects in line with Presidential Executive Orders 003 and 005. This pillar will also provide an enabling environment for indigenous content as well as the enforcement of local content policies.

Global economies have seen the importance of broadband infrastructure. The period of economic lockdown pushed people online, with many working remotely. But without adequate infrastructure, that process going forward will be encumbered. How fast is the Federal Government implementing the New National Broadband Plan 2020 to 2025?
The new Broadband Plan is designed to deliver data download speeds across Nigeria with a minimum 25Mbps in urban areas and 10Mbps in rural areas, with effective coverage available to at least 90 per cent of the population by 2025. Despite the COVID-19 challenge, we are embarking on activities towards the implementation of the plan. A case in point is the resolution of the Right of Way (RoW) issue that will greatly boost the pace of deployment of broadband services across the country, especially to unserved and underserved areas.

The 100-Page document of the NNBP revealed that the country would need about $5 billion to advance the course of broadband to both rural and urban communities in Nigeria. How will the industry get this required funding?
Funding for the implementation of the plan will be multi-faceted. We expect it to come from both Government and the private sector. Specifically, investments from the private sector will be supported through the provision of an enabling environment by Government to reduce the cost of deployment and successive operational expenses.

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Government spending through agencies such as Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Galaxy Backbone Ltd (GBB), Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF), is also being harmonised to reduce overlaps and ensure optimal results from the implementation of the Broadband plan.

What incentives are there for the private sector players, who may find it difficult to deploy services in areas termed very poor for Return on Investments (RoI)?
The Nigerian National Broadband Plan (NNBP) 2020 – 2025 has put into consideration the unfavourable economic viability due to the cost of deploying and operating services in some unserved and underserved communities of the country. The high costs are mainly due to Right-of-Way (RoW) issues, multiple taxations, equipment vandalism and theft.

The NNBP has made policy provisions and identified incentives to reduce the impact of the challenges. With my intervention through the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), we have secured the commitment from the states to apply the maximum agreed RoW fees of N145/linear meter across the whole country. Interestingly, many states have completely waved charges to zero Naira. I want to use this opportunity to thank the NGF and their Chairman, the Governor of Ekiti State, His Excellency, Governor Kayode Fayemi for resolving the RoW issue.

Also, several incentives by the Government to reduce the cost of deployment and operational expenses such as subsidies from Universal Service provision Fund (USPF) have been provided for in the NNBP. The Plan further allows the creation of consortiums which would provide benefits such as – RoW waivers (National & State including Federal Ministry of Works (FMoW), Nigerian Railway Corporation (NRC), National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) among others), Fibre and associated electronics duty waivers for new build only, Pioneer status, tax waivers and other applicable incentives.

Lately, State Governors have been seen reducing Right of Way (RoW) tariffs for broadband deployment, what impact does this have on the Digital Economy Agenda and what measures are you deploying to ensure other Governors also do the same?
The reduced or in some cases elimination of RoW charges will increase the National Fibre coverage to every local government area including less commercially viable areas, with increased fibre reach to the tower and public venues. We are commending once again, those states, which have implemented the decision of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) and look forward to implementation by states that are yet to do so.

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Some months ago, you directed that Mobile Network Operators should review downward the cost of mobile data services, but nothing concrete seems to have been achieved in that regard. How does the Ministry intend to ensure that this directive is obeyed?
I directed the regulator NCC to work with the Mobile Network Operators to review their data tariffs. Though we are not where we want to be in terms of pricing, based on the report I received from the NCC, we recorded some downward review by all of the operators immediately after their engagement with the operators on the directive. We are hopeful that our achievements in resolving the issues with the RoW and security of their infrastructure will serve as incentives for a further downward review. The Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC also communicated this to the operators in a publication where he stated: “the Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) must reciprocate the gesture by making their services, in particular, data services more affordable to Nigerians.”

One of the key issues confronting the ICT industry, especially telecoms operators in Nigeria, is that of insecurity of their physical infrastructure. What have been your efforts in this regard in order to fill the lacuna of an Executive Order and delay in the passing into law of the Bill on Critical National Infrastructure Law for Telecoms sector?
On assumption of office, this was one of the issues we have been making efforts to address and our efforts have yielded result. We have been able to secure approval from Mr. President directing Security Agencies to protect ICT facilities as Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). To this end, the President has approved and also directed that necessary physical protective measures be put in place to safeguard telecommunications infrastructure deployed across the country. This directive has been brought to the notice of the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), Defence Headquarters (DHQ), Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Department of State Security Services (DSS) and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). We are also working towards the reinforcement of these directives through appropriate regulatory instruments and we appreciate the security institutions, and commend the commitment they have so far demonstrated.

What is the synergy between the ministry and parastatals under your supervision?
First of all, we give thanks to the Almighty for everything. Secondly, we are grateful to President Muhammadu Buhari GCFR for his tremendous support in delivering our mandate. The synergy among the parastatals under my purview is as a result of our commitment to serving through justice, fairness, kindness and professionalism. We are all working towards the same goal, which is to leverage on Digital Technology for economic development and the prosperity of all citizens.

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There are six parastatals under my supervision; National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Galaxy Backbone Ltd, NIGCOMSAT Ltd, Nigerian Postal Service (NIPOST) and USPF. They all play crucial roles in the journey to a Digital Nigeria and passionately committed Nigerians head them. Their commitment to duty, unity of purpose and unflinching support to the Ministry’s policies and initiatives form vital elements of the synergy.

Is there anything your ministry is doing on the harmonisation of the disparate data (SIM cards, Bank Verification Number (BVN), National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), among others) scattered all over the country?
This is the responsibility of the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), which is under the supervision of the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (OSGF). However, Mr. President has recently constituted an inter-ministerial committee on Citizen Data Harmonisation in which I happen to be the Chair of a sub-committee. We have done our part and submitted a comprehensive report. I have also directed NCC to ensure that all new SIM registrations include the use of National Identification Number (Digital ID).

Virtual/remote operations are new and come with huge challenges including lack of infrastructure, expensive and there could be a security breach. What measures has the Government put in place to prevent security breach?
We have developed policies to guide public institutions working online with guidelines for citizens’ privacy and protection. We have many policies, guidelines and standards like Nigeria Data Protection Regulation (NDPR), Nigeria e-Government Interoperability Framework (Ne-GIF), Nigeria Cloud Computing Policy and many more. Furthermore, the Ministry and its parastatals send out advisories on cybersecurity threats frequently.

Looking at your schedule of work, which appears to be tight, how and when does the minister relax?
I relax by exercising regularly and spending quality time with family among others.

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In this article:
Isa Ali IbrahimNITDA
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