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Consolidating telecoms sector’s growth

By Adeyemi Adepetun
10 June 2020   |   4:16 am
As the saying goes, the reward for hard work is more work. This aptly fits the present circumstances surrounding the Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission...

Executive Commissioner, Stakeholders Management, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Adeleke Adewolu (left); Executive Vice Chairman/CEO,NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta; Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, and Executive Commissioner, Technical Services, NCC, Ubale Maska, during a Courtesy visit to the Minister, Abuja, on Monday.

As the saying goes, the reward for hard work is more work. This aptly fits the present circumstances surrounding the Executive Vice Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Umar Danbatta, who has successfully earned a second term of five years in office.

Danbatta, who was appointed into office on August 4, 2015, for his first term, has had it good, bad and ugly. But, analysts believe that his positive contributions to the industry outweigh the downside of his first five years as the chief executive officer of NCC.

It is on this premise that the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Isa Pantami, who recommended Danbatta to President Muhammadu Buhari for a second term, called on the EVC and his team to redouble their efforts towards actualising the digital economy agenda of the Federal Government.

The Minister spoke when the Executive Management of the Commission led by Danbatta paid him a courtesy visit on Monday.

According to the Minister, the proactive decision to recommend Danbatta’s reappointment to the President for approval was “to ensure stability in the telecommunications industry and consolidate on the gains and successes already recorded in the industry in the last five years of Danbatta’s leadership as the EVC of NCC.”

Pantami, however, emphasised the need for the Danbatta-led NCC Management to work more harmoniously with the Ministry and agencies, towards ensuring effective implementation of the National Digital Economy Policy and Strategy (NDEPS) as well as thorough implementation of the new National Broadband Plan (NBP), 2020-2025.

“The success of the Commission is our collective responsibility. While we, as a Ministry, do our best to formulate general industry policy and supervise the activities of the Commission, I will urge the NCC family to be united, remove all lines of demarcation, ensure justice, fairness in all decisions and above all, ensure harmonious relationships. This task lies on the table of the EVC,” he pointed out.

Speaking further, Pantami reminded the EVC that the focus of President Buhari is currently to boost the digital economy, which, he said, has become even more important following the experience of COVID-19 pandemic that has left many individuals and organisations relying more on digital platforms for work and collaboration.

“So, we expect the NCC, as the telecoms regulator, to take the issue of the digital economy very seriously and give it all the attention it deserves within the Commission,” he said.

Protecting small telcos
While congratulating the EVC for earning a second term in office, the Chairman of the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said his reappointment is a testimony of his good leadership under, which the industry has made significant progress.

Going forward, Adebayo, an engineer, tasked the EVC on the need for the regulator to protect the smaller players and ensure they survive in the interest of competition and the consumers.

The ALTON chairman posited that Danbatta’s second term will bring about consistency for the progress of the industry.

On his part, the President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, said the EVC needs to ensure that the Nigerian Broadband Plan 2020-25 is implemented in a timely manner, and that lessons learnt from the 2013-18 plan should be adhered to, to avoid the painful mistakes identified in the current plan.

Teniola said the focus should be on affordability of Internet access and the digital transformation the industry needs to undertake for continued relevancy in the digital realm.

“We are behind in fibre rollout and behind in 4G coverage, so NCC under his leadership needs to fully collaborate with ATCON members and the wider industry stakeholders to build a robust digital infrastructure that is fit for purpose

“Finally, it is well recognised that as an industry and during COVID-19 lockdown directives that our networks are heavily relied on to act as an enabling platform for the Nigerian Digital Economy. For that to be the case the industry needs to fund the building of such platform as envisioned in the Nigerian Broadband Plan in a spirit of collaboration. This means that the industry will be undergoing tremendous change to adapt to the new norm. Digital skills are paramount and these skills are required for the continued growth of our industry,” he stressed.

Stakeholders call for collaborations
For the sector to thrive better, especially in the next five years, stakeholders have called for collaboration among operators and the regulator.

Managing Director of Rack Centre, Tunde Coker, the sector is capable of increasing its contributions from the current 14 per cent to 20 per cent in another two years, if government can pivot away from oil and give ICT a diversification priority.

Coker said collaboration between the regulator and players in the sector will play an important role
in positioning the sector positively.

Chief Executive Officer (CEO) VDT Communication, Biodun Omoniyi, COVID-19 brought huge responsibility on the sector, “and we didn’t fail. However, lots still need to be done post-pandemic. Collaborations among players and governments at all levels will be key.”

The Country Manager, Avanti, Jane Egerton-Idehen, made case for faster implementation of the New National Broadband Plan 2020 to 2025, where she stressed the need for collaboration, especially between the sector and states governments that will further see to reduction of Right of Ways,” as COVID-19 has further stretched the timing for some aspect of the plan to be realised.”

The last five years
Meanwhile, part of the developments that came to the industry was an increase in the sector’s investment.

For instance, four years ago, the investment profile of the sector was around $38 billion. But today, it has grown to over $70 billion. Despite this, the telecom regulator has admitted the present investment in the sector is inadequate and will continue to pursue policies that would encourage more investment, stressing that Nigeria is one of the fastest growing telecommunications markets in the world.

Speaking at the maiden Nigerian Telecom Leadership Summit (NTLS) held in Lagos last year (2019), Danbatta, admitted: “The volume of telecom investment in Nigeria is very impressive and indicative of a very fast-growing and resilient sector of the economy. But, we will continue to advocate for more investment, giving that the industry was very capital intensive, with the competition for Foreign Direct Investments becoming fiercer among different nations.”

It is estimated that about 40 million Nigerians, especially those in the rural and semi-urban areas are yet to be reached with basic infrastructure and services, making the over $68 billion investment in the telecom industry inadequate and therefore committed to attracting more investment in the industry.

Stressing this during the NTLS, Danbatta stated: “The argument for more investments becomes more compelling, given that this industry is very capital intensive, with the competition for Foreign Direct Investments, FDls, becoming fiercer among different nations. In our consultative regulatory process, we consider shared experiences, and shared vision as the best approach to equip us with the tools to continuously reposition towards the course of effective regulation.”

Curbing Menace of Call Masking, Call Refilling
In the wake of 2017, the menace of call masking/call refilling and SIM boxing reared their ugly heads with a charge on NCC to find a lasting solution to the menace.

Basically, call masking is when inbound international calls terminate in Nigeria as local number.

This raises security concerns, competition issue and portends negative economic implications. In fact, it is estimated that globally, call masking is causing economy $60 billion yearly.

NCC, under Danbatta, tackled the menace by ensuring strict compliance monitoring and enforcement by the Commission; imposition of appropriate sanctions by NCC on licensees involved in call refiling and masking activities; and suspension of numbering plans of some perpetrators and withdrawal of all their inactive numbering plans.

These interventions generated results for the industry. First, call masking (otherwise called call line identity (CLI) spoofing) has since dropped to more than 40 per cent compared to how prevalent it as in January 2018. Also, SIM boxing traffic has been down by about
25 per cent as at September 11, 2018.

Widening broadband deployment and spectrum auction
Following the implementation of the 8-Point Agenda, the country was able to achieve and surpass its broadband penetration target of 30 per cent by the end of December, 2018, a feat that got commendations.

Various efforts of the Commission in licensing new spectrum bands, re-farming certain frequency bands and driving initiatives for increased broadband infrastructure in the country have also been responsible for these feats.

With increase in broadband penetration being recorded on a monthly basis, stakeholders have said that the NCC is well positioned and must be supported by the government through relevant policies to drive the actualisation of the country’s digital economy policy strategy, going forward.

This has become necessary since, as usual; the Commission is expected to take the driver’s seat in the actualisation of the new broadband target being worked on by the Ministry of Communication and Digital Economy. Just recently, the new National Broadband Plan for 2020-2025 was unveiled by President Muhammadu Buhari. This targets 70 per cent broadband penetration in the next five years.

Danbatta made it clear that henceforth, access to broadband, which stands at 39.5 per cent, will become a fundamental metrics for measuring development growth and development in Nigeria, as it will be central to the growth recorded in every other sector of the economy where telecoms would be driving services automation and digitisation.

Already, six Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) have been licensed by NCC to take broadband in an Open Access Model to the 774 Local Government Areas of the country.

In the area of spectrum administration, the Commission auctioned six slots of 2×5 megahertz (MHz) in the 2.6 gigahertz (GHz) Band, re-planning of the 800 MHz band for Long-Term Evolution (LTE), licensing of two slots of 10 MHz each in the 700 MHz band, as well as the opening up of the E-band spectrum 70/80 GHz band for both last-mile and backhaul services.

“We will develop and implement flexible, market-oriented spectrum regulatory policies that promote highly efficient use of spectrum in ways that stimulate innovation, investment, and job creation and increased consumer benefits,” he said.

Growth in number of subscribers
The entire ICT contribution was even higher at 14 per cent as of the first quarter of 2020, according to the latest data released by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).

Active mobile voice subscribers increased from 151,018,624 in August 2015, when Danbatta came on board, to 189,282,796 as at the end of March, 2020. Between August 2015 and February 2019, when teledensity was measured against the 140 population in Nigeria, teledensity increased from 107.87 to 124.05 per cent. However, after rebasing the country’s teledensity to 91 per cent in February, 2019, in line with international best practice and economic reality, teledensity has impressively increased from 91 per cent to 99.16 per cent as of March, 2020.

Internet subscribers increased from 90 million in 2015 to 136.2 million as of March, 2020. Broadband penetration increased from eight per cent in 2015 to 39.90 per cent in March, 2020. This indicates that 76.2 million Nigerians are now on broadband networks of 3G and 4G in the country.

Also, the number of subscribers that have subscribed to Mobile Number Portability (MNP) service increased from 385, 617 in August 2015 to 1075047 as of March, 2020. This is due to increased public education and awareness by the Commission’s head office and its zonal offices, as they intensified awareness on the availability and usage of MNP across geo-political zones.