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Ucheagwu: Time to declare critical telecom infrastructure

By Mimi Ucheagwu
11 March 2015   |   11:00 pm
OLUWAKEMI Babatunde is a fish trader based in Epe, a small town about 40 kilometres from mainland Lagos. She’s been in the fish trade for ages, with clients in diverse places that included Lekki and Ajah in Lagos.

OLUWAKEMI Babatunde is a fish trader based in Epe, a small town about 40 kilometres from mainland Lagos. She’s been in the fish trade for ages, with clients in diverse places that included Lekki and Ajah in Lagos. She has just finished using her smartphone, one of the low-end (read cheaper) models which she got from the online retailer, Jumia. Using a particular app on the phone she has been able to compare average prices of fish over the last one week in three major markets in Lagos and decided which of the markets to head to with her wares, tomorrow.

Her daughter who is in school introduced her to the app a few weeks ago. In the old days, traders would go to any of the markets on the basis of trial and error. For instance, because there was no means with which to forewarn traders like herself, sometimes you got to a market to discover late in the day that there is a glut of supply, by which time, moving to another market is out of the question on account of the logistic nightmare moving around Lagos entails. These days, you were more certain of getting good returns on your sales and in a particular market and you faced a much lesser likelihood of selling at a loss or returning to your base with unsold and ready-to-rot fish.

Babatunde’s scenario is a sampler of the manner in which telecommunications continues to impact life in different ways across the country. The app on the phone for instance was developed by a brilliant, young, recent university graduate who had prior to his new career as an applications developer, reportedly searched in vain for a paid job. Today, the young man’s talent and creativity is not only earning him a decent living but in the process adding value to the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.

Jumia itself, from which Babatunde obtained her smartphone typifies yet another recent phenomenon, the emergence of online retailing in Nigeria. Jumia and Konga are the two biggest online retailers in that space and together are driving what is in effect, a paradigm shift in the way and manner Nigerians transact retailing business.

Until recently, making voice calls and sending text messages were the predominant activities in which millions of subscribers to the telecom networks were engaged. The telecom industry has since evolved to a new standard, which it calls third generation and fourth generation (3G and 4G). At this level, they provide mobile broadband services which other members of the telecom ecosystem creatively deploy to consumers in the form of mobile TV, music streaming, online retail, and lots more.

There are dozens of similar online retailers and indeed a fast blossoming online ecosystem, in the country, providing a livelihood to thousands of people and driving economic development.

In the absence of a national land line or government owned transmission backbone of any consequence, the telecom networks even though privately-owned have become the de facto communications networks for practically everyone and every private or public-sector operative in Nigeria. It is difficult to imagine how Nigeria would cope in a situation in which all of the telecom networks collapsed even for one day.     Government operatives would be incommunicado. Financial transactions would become impossible as banks rely on the telecom networks considerably to facilitate transactions. Security would be threatened as lack of communication would severely impinge on the ability of the defence apparatchik to commune with itself. The potential accompanying chain reaction to all of this is best imagined.

Thus, the military rulers of old, decreed that all of the infrastructure belonging to the then state-owned telecommunications network, NITEL, be designated as critical national infrastructure. The implication of this at the time was that no-one, not even the state governments could interfere with NITEL’s installations.

That declaration sent a strong message to those who were wont to vandalize NITEL’s equipment and facilities. Indeed the military followed this declaration up by imposing severe punishment on those found to have stolen or vandalized NITEL’s equipment. In today’s Nigeria, telecom companies have erected infrastructure to the tune of billions of dollars and far in excess of the facilities of the defunct NITEL. For instance, there are more than 26,000 kilometres of fibre-optic cables laid across the country by two of the networks, MTN and Glo. There are more than 25,000 base transceiver stations installed across the country. Typically, each of those base stations would be accompanied by two generators, a diesel tank and other specialised equipment.

The huge investment, notwithstanding, the country experiences regular spell of poor quality of service on the networks. Clearly, in the face of steadily growing demand, there is an imperative for continuously aggressive investment in the telecom sector.

It, therefore, becomes a huge paradox when the infrastructure, despite their strategic significance are left completely unprotected by way of any deliberate policy or legislation by the central government. Today, the telecom industry infrastructure is reportedly reeling from the effect of sustained equipment vandalism. Often in the process, telecom industry operatives lose their lives.

Across many states, telecom infrastructure have come to be seen as some form of cash cow to be selectively targeted for the purposes of raising money for government. For instance, while only state governments are statutorily empowered to charge Building Permit fees, many local government councils now demand of telecom companies, erection permits, installation permits, telecom building permits and hordes of other spurious charges which are basically illegal. In many states whereas tenement rates ought to be not more than N15,000 per building, telecoms are typically slammed with charges in excess of N300,000 as tenement rates. The Department of Petroleum Resources has also since begun demanding Petroleum Dump Rate tax from telecom companies on account of diesel tanks installed in their base stations and with which they fuel their generators. The National Inland Water Authority is also demanding right of way payment in hundreds of millions of Naira, for transmission cables that are laid across bridges on federal highways.

The list is endless.

Government establishments have been known to unilaterally shut down telecom installations on the guise of not having paid some of these spurious and contestable taxes. Then, quality of service on the telecom networks, takes a nosedive. Little wonder therefore, that the Nigerian Communications Commission has since issued a warning to its peer government agencies to desist from indiscriminate sealing of telecom installations. Overall, cost of deployment becomes impossible to predict with taxes right, left and centre.

Designating telecom infrastructure as critical national infrastructure under the exclusive oversight of the federal government will help to send a strong message to the various organs of government on the strategic importance of these facilities. It will send a message to potential vandals that there are possible dire consequences to their intrusion and very likely stave off some attacks.

Perhaps equally critical is the fact that it will help to provide these companies with clearer bases for business forecasting and enable them plan better for growth and expansion especially at a time when there is an urgent imperative for continuing investment in the telecom sector.

• Mimi Ucheagwu works with XLR8, a communication consultancy based in Lagos.