Sunday, 10th December 2023

Non-passage of CNI Bill 15yrs after, threatens $77b telecom industry

By Adeyemi Adepetun, Assistant Editor
21 September 2023   |   4:22 am
Nigeria’s $77 billion telecommunications sector, which currently houses 34,862 towers, 127,294 Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) and 96,198km fibre optics, is endangered as a result of the absence of laws backing infrastructure safety and deployment.

A rooftop telecoms mast

• Presidency, NASS politics delay CNI bill for 15 years
• Vandalism surges by over 35% as operators lose 15,000 generators
• 34,862 towers, 127,294 Base Stations, 96,198km fibre optics endangered
• East and Northern Nigeria account for highest rate of destruction
• Analysts foresee huge drop in quality of telephony service  

Nigeria’s $77 billion telecommunications sector, which currently houses 34,862 towers, 127,294 Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) and 96,198km fibre optics, is endangered as a result of the absence of laws backing infrastructure safety and deployment.

Specifically, the non-passage of the Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) bill, about 15 years after it was presented at the National Assembly (NASS), has contributed, in no small measure, to the slow upgrade and expansion of telecoms infrastructure services, especially to the hinterland.

Four successive sessions of the parliament have discussed the National Critical Infrastructure Bill, yet none has been able to successfully harmonise and pass the bill for presidential assent.

This, stakeholders stressed, has contributed significantly to rising cases of vandalism of telecommunications infrastructure and the low incentive for fresh investments, especially in rural areas.

Currently in Nigeria, the systems and structures that make up the telecoms infrastructure are often taken for granted. Some state governments and agencies randomly shut down BTS sites, disrupting network services and quality of service (QoS) delivery.

The activities of criminals, terrorists and denial of access for the overhaul or upgrade of BTS sites by levy-demanding residents have adversely affected the telecoms industry, impacting sectors like banking and finance, emergency services, air traffic controls and local businesses.

State governments and their agencies, including Kogi, Oyo, Ogun, Zamfara and Kebbi, have, on different occasions, shut down telecoms’ infrastructure in their desperation for revenue generation.

The CNI Bill was first prepared in 2008 by stakeholders and presented to the National Assembly. It received some push during the tenure of the pioneer Minister of Communications Technology, Dr. Omobola Johnson. But it has failed to secure the necessary backing to sail through the legislative process.

A source told The Guardian that the Ministry and the immediate past Minister of Communications, Prof. Isa Pantami, actually withdrew the previous version and prepared another executive bill for replacement. The source said because it has to do with the security of telecoms infrastructure, it was made to go through the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA).

According to the source, the document moved from ONSA to the office of Mr. President “but nothing was done till he left.”

It was learnt that Pantami had pursued the CNI bill with the same vigour with which he pursued the rejected NITDA bill that wanted to make NITDA the overall regulatory body for the sector.
Today, the telecom operators have connected 320 million telephone lines, of which about 222 million have been active. Interestingly, the lines are serviced by 34,862 towers, 127,294 base stations and 96,198km fibre optic. The country has microwave coverage of 289,270.48km and 125 gateways servicing the economy.

The NCC puts 2G population coverage at 93.90 per cent; 3G penetration at 86.82 per cent; 4G hovers around 79 per cent, while 5G subscribers are over 500,000. These generations of technology are powered by the endangered telecoms infrastructure.

Indeed, the passage of the bill has become more critical now than before because information at the disposal of The Guardian showed that the spate of vandalism and theft of telecoms facilities remain on the rise. Some of the operators put the rate at over 35 per cent, almost yearly.

In separate fora late 2022, the NCC decried the increasing rate of vandalism on telecoms facilities that includes daily 40 fibre cuts, stealing of oil panels and other valuables at operators’ sub-stations.

The Executive Vice Chairman of the NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, who urged communities to take charge of the security of telecoms infrastructure in the locality, said over 50,000 cases of major destruction to telecoms infrastructure and facilities have been reported across the country in the past five years, raising alarm over the implication of these incidents to the quality of telecommunications services in Nigeria.

It was gathered that MTN alone suffered an average of eight fibre cuts daily across Nigeria. The firm told The Guardian that last February, it suffered 14 cuts in different places in a single day in Lagos.

A document sighted by The Guardian showed that some construction companies, including Crainberg, CCECC, Julius Berger, CGC, FERMA and KOPEC were fingered in the various damages to telecoms infrastructure, especially fibre optics cables.

The document showed that these cuts were largely noticed in some cities including Eket, Enugu, Agbor-Asaba, Ashikwue, Okpanam, Ikolaba, Abuja, Lafia Owerri and Lagos.

In 2020, Airtel Nigeria cried out that road construction projects in Lagos and other parts of the country were negatively impacting its network performance due to the high level of cuts they give to its fibre cables.

Airtel said between July 2019 and February 2020, it experienced 1022 fibre cuts, responsible for a drop in the quality of services.

The firm recorded 405 cases of fibre cut as a result of road rehabilitation activities by construction workers while 617 cases were due to vandalism.

The Guardian gathered that over 15,000 generating sets have also been lost to miscreants, amid the theft of batteries at Base Transceiver Station (BTS) sites.

While the NASS, like the Presidency, is culpable in the delay in the passage of the bill due to what sources described as politics, checks showed that many countries of the world consider telecoms infrastructure as national assets. From China to India, down to the United States, countries impose strict sanctions on individuals who destroy such assets.

In the United States of America and the European Union, for instance, telecommunications infrastructure is covered by Acts because of the important role the ICT industry plays in national security and the economy. Critical infrastructure protection in the U.S. has been in place since 1996.

The Patriot Act of 2001 defines critical infrastructure as those systems and assets, whether physical or virtual, so vital to the United States that the incapacity or destruction of such systems and assets would have a debilitating impact on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of these matters.

Indeed, vandalism impacts the quality of voice and data services being rendered to subscribers, which sometimes leads to an outright network outage in an area/town/region and a slow pace of network expansion.

Also, low browsing/download speed, high drop call rate, low call setup success rate/congestion, and voice quality degradation (Clipping Voice) are the other key impacts or effects of fibre cut on subscribers.

They also have a ripple effect on the business community, which needs Internet connectivity to transact their businesses.

Fibre cuts have dire consequences on national security as well as the output of businesses, particularly those whose progress runs largely on the wheels of telecommunications.

In one of his interviews with The Guardian, the Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said unless operators have a first level of protection by government, “it will be difficult to continue to provide uninterrupted services with the type of vulnerability experienced by our members and their infrastructure. We kindly request a presidential executive order on ‘Telecoms Infrastructure as Critical National Security and Economic Infrastructure’ as provided by the cybercrime law of 2015.”

On why the bill has lingered so long without result, a telecoms expert, Kehinde Aluko, said: “It is political! Moreover, the lawmakers did not see it as something of interest to them.

Aluko said the bane of the sector is much, including the over 39 different forms of taxes, which grossed N450 billion between 2010 and 2015.

According to him, these taxes, fees and levies are too many and could hinder foreign direct investment and funds needed to grow the sector.

Some of the taxes worrying the operators include eco tax for gaseous emission, sewage, sanitation/public convenience levy, sanitation/refuse effluent tax, business premises tax for base stations situated in farmlands, and tenements rates charged per base station in some states.

In a chat with The Guardian, the Chief Executive Officer of VDT Communications Limited, Biodun Omoniyi, said critical infrastructure is not just about telecommunications infrastructure – others including Power and Energy (Oil & Gas); railway tracks, airport runway armored cables that are required to provide economic and security services.

Omoniyi said as it pertains to telecommunications, the non-passage of the CNI bill hurts the delivery of services and affects the quality of what the public gets.

He explained that it also causes economic losses. “You may want to look at the different dimensions of the causes of disruption (damage). It is largely willful – due to theft. This has both economic (poverty) and security implications. So, it is in the interest of the government (NASS) to pass the bill to deter the damages.

“But, sometimes I wonder if passed, what would change? There are already many laws that criminalize those vices. How will the implementation of this be different?

“There are laws that criminalise economic sabotage on many fronts. But, when you have a bunch of hungry citizens roaming the streets, it needs more than just clamping everyone into jail (Fines would not solve it).”

The VDT boss said on the other side is the effect of poor quality service on security.

According to him, it is “possible that these implementation challenges are things the Lawmakers are mindful of and are thinking about. What would another layer of bogus law solve that are not in other earlier laws?”

The President of the National Association of Telecoms Subscribers (NATCOMs), Adeolu Ogunbanjo, said not making telecoms a critical national infrastructure was creating an extra burden on the shoulders of telcos.

According to him, the government only focused on extracting taxes from the sector. He added that the government places little priority on the sector, hence its continued negligence.

He stated, “The government is turning deaf years to it, and that is the operating environment of the network operators. Government must appreciate this. Currently, the government is leveraging what it has not protected and charges taxes.

“The government should be sensitive to the telecoms industry. They can’t be taxing what they are not protecting. They should protect what they want to tax. If the government doesn’t heed these prayers, subscribers and network operators might need to force action.

“State governments were directed to explore other means of resolving tax-related disputes and must not resort to the sealing of telecommunications sites.”

While the Chairman of the House Committee on Communications, Peter Akpatason, could not be reached as at press time, a former chairman of the House Committee on Information and Technology, Shehu Gusau, told The Guardian, that work was ongoing on the bill some years ago.
“The bill is still being held. The public hearing is yet to be done. Some issues need to be sorted out between this arm and the executive. It is a bill we are expecting to come as quickly as possible.

“I discussed it with some House members and they told me they were waiting for some things to be sorted out. You know the process of bills. It will still need to pass through the first reading, second reading and then a public hearing. It then goes back to the third reading. Finally, the two houses concur. If agreed to, it goes to the president for assent.”

The Industry Working Group on Multiple Taxation, constituted by the NCC, defined critical infrastructure as assets, which were essential for the effective functioning of any society or economy.

It said the assets were identified as the basic facilities, services, and installations critical to the social and economic well-being of any State.

It said: “They represent utility assets or ‘public works’ which are indivisible from the efficient operational activities of any society. It is universally accepted that any nation’s health, wealth, and security depend upon the production and distribution of certain goods and services.

“The array of physical assets, functions, and systems across which these goods and services move are considered critical infrastructures. Such infrastructures are identified as the most critical to any society and are prioritised based on the level/impact of risk associated with their loss to attack or disaster.”

The group disclosed this in a document titled, ‘Brief on the Designation of Telecommunications Infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure.’

According to them, communication infrastructure was a critical national asset and deserved the highest levels of protection since they were important to the efficient functioning of any society. They said there was a need to pay commensurate attention to the operating environment of communication infrastructure since they played a supportive role in other infrastructure, social and economic activity in the nation.

They added: “Indeed communications can be described as an adhesive that holds other composite systems in our society together. Communications provide the conduits through which interactions between and within other sub-systems, enable the effective functioning of society at large.

“Therefore, a breakdown in the communications system can lead to a breakdown in many other societal systems which depend upon communication and exchange of information to function successfully.”