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Improving telecoms sector’s contributions through collaboration

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The telecommunications revolution transformed the Nigeria society in divers’ ways since the dawn of the new millennium. A breakthrough in telephone infrastructure emerged in January 2001 when the sector was totally liberalised with the licensing of MTN and ECONET, now Airtel.

By August 2002, a year after commercial launch, the operators had activated over a million lines in Nigeria. About two years after, Globacom came into existence, and by 2009, the Arab investors saw opportunities in Nigeria, and Etisalat now 9Mobile opened a new chapter of revolution in the sector.

The Global System of Mobile Communication (GSM) spread in a highly competitive manner from state to state and city to-city. As much as competition played huge role, collaboration was central to the various forms of developments witnessed.

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Telecoms revolution
Succinctly, from about 450,000 NITEL telephone lines in 2001, as at January 2020, the operators had connected well over 250 million lines, with 184 million active subscribers. Though, unique subscriptions, according to the Global System for Mobile Telecommunications Association (GSMA) is around 65 million, owing to the multi-SIM nature of Nigerians.

In terms of investments, from less than $50 million in 2001 to over $70 billion FDIs as at end of 2019, it shows the resilience of the sector. A GSMA report titled: “Spotlight on Nigeria: Delivering a Digital Future”, disclosed that the mobile communication industry as at 2017 had created half a million jobs, and contributed $21 billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

While there are close to 130 million people online via the narrow band (GSM technology), broadband penetration has however, increased from between four and six per cent to over 38 per cent with over 75 million people surfing the net at a very high speed. This is even as the sector’s GDP contribution to the economy has moved from eight per cent to 11per cent as at 2019.

Indeed, in the word of the Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, telecoms has become infrastructure of infrastructure.

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Adebayo explained that every segment of the economy now relies heavily on the telcos infrastructure to succeed. In other words, disruption or vandalism of telecoms infrastructure is capable of grounding the economy.

Today, from banking to education, logistics to media, transport to health, telecoms remain very relevant. Even as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, telecoms technology has been very active. While some people now work remotely from home using technology, meetings are held online and prescriptions and medical examinations are conducted via teleconferencing.

This speaks volume of the fact that the place of telecoms infrastructure remains very significant.There has never been a time in the history of humanity when the need to have seamless access to telecoms services has become very central than now when people need to keep in touch with their friends, relatives, business partners and to carry out official engagements than now, when the coronavirus pandemic is raging.

Though cases of the pandemic are increasing on a daily basis, with about 131 reported cases in Nigeria, government is taking measures to curb the pandemic. The telecoms sector has however, continued to provide succor to Nigerians by facilitating access- either through voice or Internet (broadband services).

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The place of infrastructure protection
In view of the importance of the sector, especially now and in the future, the various challenges as witnessed in illegal shutdown of base stations, vandalism, theft, fibre cuts, multiple taxation, which had hitherto resulted in persistent drop in quality of service, deserve urgent attention.

According to ALTON, there have been cases where hoodlums break into a site, kill or injure the guard on duty and cart away valuable equipment such as the power generating sets, BTS equipment and air conditioners among other things. The body said such developments lead to network outages in the area covered by the vandalised facility.

At the peak of the insurgency in Northeast, operators were also at the receiving end of the destruction that took place in the region. In Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states, 100s of BTS sites were either bombed or affected due to dependence on a bombed site. This resulted in loss of coverage in places, such as Dikwa, Gamboru, Monguno, Bama, Konduga and Damaturu.

Illegal sites lock-outs is another headache of operators. Telcos claim this is a major cause of drop calls and poor QoS in general. State governments and local government or their agents on the one hand and landlords/communities over disputed taxes, levies or rent as may be applicable.

Operators sometimes get into disputes with states and local governments over taxes and levies or with landlords over rent. These often arise when the government’s agencies attempt to impose illegal taxes and levies in a bid to raise their Internally Generated Revenue (IGR).

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The Executive Vice Chairman, NCC, Prof Umar Danbatta had to intervene in Ogun and Kano states in 2016 where he collaborated with the state governments to ensure unsealing of already sealed BTS. About two years ago, he also ensured that Kogi State unsealed more than 70 BTS sealed by agents of the state.

Importance of collaboration
As mentioned earlier, collaboration had and will still play huge role in the sector. This has been harped on by several stakeholders, even President Muhammadu Buhari has called for protection of the sector.

President Buhari at an official function in Abuja directed the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami to join forces with the NCC in this regard, by working with states and other relevant ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) towards protecting critical national infrastructure, especially telecoms facilities.

This presidential directive is based on the President’s recognition of the fact that the Minister needed to truly face the task of addressing other compelling industry issues.

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According to a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, if collaboration is sustained by Pantami without unnecessary and undue interference, more Nigerians will have access to voice and Internet/broadband services. He posited that businesses and organisations will be able to leverage digital platforms to achieve more efficiency in their daily activities, which will lead to more growth in the telecom industry.

Aluko posited that a more harmonious relationship among the agencies under the supervision of Pantami, will not only unlock new grounds, but also provide avenue for fresh investments into the sector.

He stressed that the ministry should know that working harmoniously with NCC to address the myriad of industry challenges is key to truly achieving a digital economy that the minister is championing for the country currently.

Though the minister has promised to fast track the passage into law the CNI bill, Aluko posited out that the minister, being very influential, can also help get the FCDA to invoke the process of reviewing the Abuja master plan to accommodate emerging needs and technology that were not in place decades ago when the master plan was conceived.

On the part of NCC, Aluko urged the Danbatta-led commission to continue its engagements with stakeholders across the geo-political zones of the country to sensitise them on the centrality of protecting telecoms infrastructure, increased regulatory measures in monitoring QoS of MNOs, all in a bid to ensure that Nigerians have unhindered access to telecoms services.
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