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Public Internet access wanes despite N33tr investment

By Adeyemi Adepetun
04 December 2020   |   4:32 am
Despite the over $70 billion (N32.9 trillion) worth of investments that have gone into Nigeria’s telecoms sector, availability of Public Internet Access is still a far cry. These investments comprise those from foreign and local investors.

• Lagos free Wi-Fi project struggles • Operators to concentrate more services in urban cities
• Costs of Smartphones, laptops pose barrier to affordability, access

Despite the over $70 billion (N32.9 trillion) worth of investments that have gone into Nigeria’s telecoms sector, availability of Public Internet Access is still a far cry. These investments comprise those from foreign and local investors.

The Guardian found that access options, including public Wi-Fi points in physical facilities such as libraries, post offices, tertiary institutions, hospitals, airports, and community centres, which should have provided Nigerians more choices for connectivity and open up the Internet to people who have no other means are still missing.

Though, as at September, Nigeria had 151 million Internet users, largely through the narrow band, while broadband penetration, according to the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), is 45 per cent deepened. Some 25 million people, who constitute about 114 access gaps, though largely in the remote areas, are still without any basic telephony services.

Analysis of the 2019 Telecoms Year End Report by the NCC on Internet usage in Nigeria, showed that government use of the Internet is just 0.9 per cent; NGO 4.6 per cent; multinational 0.04 per cent; schools and research institutions 0.009 per cent; residential/ individuals 91.6 per cent; private business 2.3 per cent.

Others are cybercafés 0.06 per cent; hospitals/medical research 0.07 per cent; public libraries 0.0002 per cent; military 0.002 per cent, and others 0.36 per cent.

Further analysis showed that, in terms of regions with Internet penetration, connected through the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), the South West leads with 75 per cent connection, which amounted to 193,405 users. South South with 15, 536 users (six per cent); North West 166 subscribers (0.06 per cent); South East 333 customers (0.12 per cent); North East 344 users (0.13 per cent); North Central 47,301 users (18 per cent), and North West 166 users, amounting to 0.06 per cent.

While the United Nations, through the International Telecommunications Union, has designated Internet access as a human right, the World Bank has found a link between ubiquitous broadband and growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

A 2019 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) noted that Public Internet Access could play huge role in addressing access gaps and making the Internet available to more people who would otherwise not have access.

“Public access plays crucial and complementary role for the broadband market: it helps onboard new users for the first time, creates additional points of connectivity, and can stimulate demand for existing services,” the report stated.

It is painful, however, to note that despite huge investments in about five submarine cable systems, there has been little impact on Public Internet Access. The cables were since berthed at the seashores of the country with huge bandwidth capacity of over 40 Terabytes,

Submarine cable system.. Photos: TechSpot

The submarine cable system include SAT 3; MainOne, Glo1, WACS and ACE. These cables cost $600 million; $300 million; $800 million; $650 million and $700 million respectively.

In one of her interviews with The Guardian, Chief Executive Officer of MainOne Cables, Funke Opeke, submitted that only about 10 per cent of the bandwidth capacity had been utilized. She claimed that lack of last-mile infrastructure had hindered effective bandwidth distribution.

The Guardian found that a major failure of 2013 to 2018 National Broadband Plan was its inability to wire Nigeria due to implementation challenge. According to the plan, between 2014 and 2015, major tertiary institutions and hospitals ought to have been connected with broadband facilities. But this did not happen. The story is still the same as at the time of filling this report.

But industry stakeholders said that faster implementation of the 2020 to 2025 New National Broadband Plan, which is expected to gulp about $5 billion, would be crucial to wiring the entire country with Internet.

A report by Techpoint stated that the viability of public Internet services, as means to increasing Internet penetration and economic development in developing countries, had been proven in a few South East Asian countries over the past decade.

For example, the Malaysian government began establishing Public Internet Access centres, now known as Pusat Internet Centres, in 2007. The government has established about 860 of these centres as of 2018 in all regions of the country.

In addition to providing free wireless broadband services, the centres also serve as innovation hubs and learning centres for locals.

The centres typically have about 20 computers for training classes and 10 for general Internet surfing, according to the 2019 Affordability Report.

“Users who got their start at Pusat Internet Centres have gone on to become online entrepreneurs, with successful e-commerce shops selling food and crafts, as well as community leaders and technology innovators working in the areas of app development, drones, 3D printer prototypes, and robotics.”

This model of public Internet centres also proved successful in Thailand, The Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

MEANWHILE, as part of its smart city project, Lagos State government, in partnership with private company (MainOne), established public Wi-Fi facilities in the state, especially at Public parks. This partnership was sealed during former Governor Akinwunmi Ambode’s tenure.

Unfortunately, after the hype that came with it in the first year of establishment, most of the parks do not have the facilities. The Guardian found that, at both Ndubuisi Kanu Park, Alausa and Muri Okunola Park, Victoria Island, users struggle to access the Wi-Fi services, as it fluctuates at intervals, and sometimes, having no connection at all.

Efforts to get immediate comment from the Lagos State government were not successful at press time; but a senior official in the Ministry of Science and Technology, who pleaded not to be named, said, “Please, do a detailed letter to the ministry to that effect.” In the same vein, MainOne had yet to respond to related queries when this report was filed.

Similarly, Facebook and Google have launched free and subsidised (in the case of Facebook Express WiFi) public Internet services in Lagos and a few other states across Nigeria.

Speaking with The Guardian on the possibility of increased Wi-Fi services at public places, the Chief Executive Officer, VDT Communications, Biodun Omoniyi, admitted there was little presence of free wireless hotspots in public places in Nigeria. He said people could get free connectivity in public places like airports and malls in developed countries, but it is not so in Nigeria because of lack of adequate funds to operate free Internet services in public places.

Omoniyi explained that the free wireless Internet services experienced at airports, parks and malls in developed countries, were installed by small players, which got funding from government, “but in Nigeria, it becomes difficult to set up free wireless hotspots where there is no funding from government. Lagos State tried it some years ago by using small operators to establish free Wi-Fi hotspots in some parts of the state, but I do not know if those hotspots are still working because of funding and sustainability.

“There has to be continuous funding for installation and maintenance for such projects to be sustained. The operators cannot go to the bank to take loan for such projects because of double-digit interest rate attached to bank loans, which makes it highly expensive and risky for telecoms businesses.”

The VDT boss said if the telecoms regulator could channel the Universal Service Provisions Funds (USPF) to small operators, there would be free Wi-Fi hotspots in some designated public places. “In developed countries where you experience free Wi-Fi hotspots, they are being funded by government and we need our government to do so in Nigeria,” said Omoniyi.

On why telecoms operators would focus more on urban centres, Omoniyi said every business would want to invest in areas where investments could easily be recouped.

According to him, operators invested money and they expect profit “and they cannot get that kind of profit in underserved and unserved areas.

“No investor will want to invest in such places, unless there are incentives from government and that is exactly what the USPF funds are meant to achieve. More profits are made from urban areas because of the population and no operator will install a 3G and 4G networks in rural areas where return on investment is very low.”

Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Fiam Wi-Fi, Akin Marinho, said investments over the last 20 years had focused primarily on one type of technology, the GSM.

Marinho said the challenge with Wi-Fi networks is that there are very few companies that truly believe in Wi-Fi as the way forward.

“How one makes money from such networks has been the main stumbling block to rolling out such networks in Nigeria. The cost of fibre, Right of Way, the actual cost of bandwidth is also high. Power is as always an inhibitor to growth of any industry.

“But we believe we have found the way to achieve success by building community Wi-Fi networks in high density low income areas, which we power using solar. And crucially our network is not over, designed nor over-engineered to achieve this.”
The Fiam Wi-Fi boss said that, to enthrone Public Internet Access, government should create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive in fair competition.

“The National Broadband Plan calls for investment of between $3 billion to $5 billion to get 80 per cent to 90 per cent Internet penetration over the next decade,” he said.

“However, the NBP only envisages GSM technology as the principal way to achieve this. This, for me, is wrong; as we must look at alternative technologies such as Television White Space (TVWS), satellite, and some of the amazing things done in India and Kenya by some American tech giants.

“We believe that, with $500 million, about 10 per cent of the budget of the NBP, we could get 90 per cent Internet penetration in Nigeria in less than three years and thus increase the GDP of Nigeria by 15 per cent as a result of that.

The World Bank says that for every 10 per cent increase in Internet penetration you could have a three per cent increase in GDP.”

A telecoms expert, Olusola Teniola, described the trend in Nigeria as a situation where most users access the Internet using the mobile phone, “and it is this mobile phone that is connected to a mobile operator’s service and then connected to the Internet using the mobile operator’s network infrastructure.”

Teniola, who is the immediate past president of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), said by the very nature that a majority of Internet access is via the mobile phone inherently makes WiFi access a secondary method of accessing the net. “Hence, ISPs in the country are the favoured means of providing WiFi ubiquitously. Most ISPs offer WiFi in hotels, event centres, halls and selected locations. If they are able to provide these in other outlets, then there is the possibility of increased usage and patronage of this service using Smartphone device users, laptops and tablets.”

According to him, the major challenges to having Wi-Fi facilities in this part of the world include the costs of Smartphones, laptops and tablets, which is still a major barrier to affordability. He stressed that the A4AI has demonstrated that for meaningful connectivity, the cost of ownership of Smartphones needs to come down drastically in Nigeria to achieve this.

Wande Adalemo, who ran Oxygen Broadband, a WIFI service firm, some years back in the country before it shut down, said that WIFI services could be replicated across major cities and towns.

Adalemo said today’s infrastructure is way more available and affordable than “when I set up Oxygen Broadband in 2012. If I can pull it off then successfully with limited infrastructure, we can do it today. I see some networks doing exactly what we started out to do in 2012 today, and they are excited about it. This is good. We need more to be done.”