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Safeguarding telecoms infrastructure in consumers’ interests

By Adeyemi Adepetun
20 October 2021   |   4:19 am
By January 2022, Nigeria is expected to join other nations that have deployed the Fifth Generation (5G) networks on a commercial basis. The 5G network is an advanced form of 2G, 3G and 4G. Nigeria currently operates the last three.

Executive Vice Chairman/CEO, Nigerian Communications Commission, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta.

Telecommunications services recorded over 16, 000 outages in the first seven months of the year, owing to various acts of vandalism. ADEYEMI ADEPETUN writes that these trends portend huge challenge to consumer satisfaction, especially as Nigeria hopes to deploy 5G soonest.

By January 2022, Nigeria is expected to join other nations that have deployed the Fifth Generation (5G) networks on a commercial basis. The 5G network is an advanced form of 2G, 3G and 4G. Nigeria currently operates the last three.
   
Like previous generations of networks already in Nigeria, infrastructure deployment has helped to strengthen expansion of telecoms services across the country. It is also expected that as 5G becomes commercial, operators would invest more in infrastructure rollout.
   
The current vandalisation challenges have, however, slowed down the pace of roll-outs. Suffice to say that deployment of 5G infrastructure in the country would also be impacted if adequate security measures are not put in place.
   
Last month, the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Pantami, disclosed that there were about 16,000 reported outages by mobile network operators (MNOs) in the country between January and July 2021. The outages, according to him, were due to fibre cuts, access denial and theft, leading to service disruption in the affected areas.

   
These vandalisms came barely a year after the announcement of a presidential directive on the protection of telecoms infrastructure across the country.
   
Pantami, while emphasizing the presidential directive to security agencies, said it would bring an end to the perennial service outages due to issues of theft, vandalism, and other attacks on telecoms facilities. The pronouncement, according to the Minister, was a testament to government’s seriousness in pursuing its digital economy agenda.
   
But that has not come to be, going by the rise in outages witnessed thus far this year. This showed that the mere pronouncement that telecoms infrastructure should be protected has not yielded positive results.
  
The operators have subsequently at different times, stressed the fact that protection of the sector goes beyond mere pronouncement, that there should be an Executive Order that would declare telecoms infrastructure as a critical national infrastructure.

Rising spate of vandalism
The Guardian gathered that the spate of attacks and theft on telecoms facilities is increasing. Some of the operators put the rate at over 35 per cent, almost on a yearly basis.
   
Information gathered from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), showed that the sector recorded over 33,000 cases of vandalism and theft of facilities from June 2017 to August 2018.

   
While the attacks cut across the six geo-political zones of the country, a telecoms official, who preferred anonymity, told The Guardian that such incidents are more frequent in the South East region.
   
The telecoms official claimed issues of fibre cuts have been very high, especially from construction companies, adding that aside them having a technology that quickly detects cuts and others on fibre cables, “only Julius Berger usually notifies us whenever they damage our facilities, other construction companies just feign ignorance to such acts. They just walk away.”
    
In Q2 2020, NCC disclosed that major MNOs in the country recorded 9,077 cases of service outages on their networks, which resulted in unexpected disruptions to operators’ quality of service (QoS) delivery and intermittent quality of experience (QoE) by the consumers.
   
NCC said of the 9,077 service outages recorded by the operators, 3,585 were caused by incidences of access denial to telecoms sites for maintenance, 4,972 were triggered by incidences of fibre cuts from construction activities and vandalism, while 520 cases were as a result of incidences of generator and battery theft at sites.
  
Director of Corporate Communications and CSR, Airtel Nigeria, Emeka Oparah disclosed that between July 2019 and February 2020, Airtel experienced 1022 fibre cuts, which affected its quality of services, at the time.

Endangered sector?
Going by these attacks, it can be deduced that the various infrastructure in the sector remained endangered.
NCC statistics showed that there are now 36,998 base stations, spread across all states of the federation. Fibre optics deployment stood at 94,547.82km (terrestrial fibre & submarine cable) as at 2020.
 

 
Further checks showed that the top five states with highest number of towers are Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers and FCT, while the states with the least number of base stations are: Jigawa, Ebonyi, Gombe, Yobe and Zamfara. Specifically, as at 2020, Lagos had 5,686 towers, Ogun 1,834; Oyo 1,761; Rivers 1,720, FCT 1,495 and Edo 1,270; Jigawa 329; Ebonyi 311; Gombe 295; Yobe 248 and Zamfara 248.
  
Currently, land fibre deployment is around 43,898.8km. The on-land fibre deployment as per operators are MTN – 14,612km; Glo 13,306km; Airtel– 11,151km; EMTS 4,650km and Ntel – 180km.
  
By the end of last year, the total submarine fibre deployment in kilometers was 25,128.3km.The fibre deployment by four mobile operators include MTN-15,244km; Glo 9,800km; Airtel 14km and Ntel 70km.
  
In terms of fibre optics deployment, as at last December, MTN had deployed 14,612km on land and 15,244km submarine fibre optics; Globacom deployed 13,306km on land and 9,800km submarine fibre optics; 21st Century deployed 8,050km on land and 33km fibre optics, while ipNX deployed 1956km on land fibre optics. This makes an aggregate of 37,924km of on-land Fibre Optics deployed as at 2020.

Presidential directive fails to inspire action
Announcing the directive last year, Pantami said security agencies in the country were henceforth responsible for the protection of telecommunications infrastructure across the country. According to him, this followed the presidential approval of his request to that effect.

   
With the approval, he said the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), Defence Headquarters (DHQ), Nigeria Police Force (NPF), Department of State Security Services (DSS), and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC), had been notified of the President’s directive.
  
While declaring telecoms infrastructure as Critical National Infrastructure that must be protected, the Minister noted that “the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, has led to a massive migration to digital platforms and has increased the level of importance of Critical National Infrastructure to the sustenance of our economy and the security of the nation.”

Operators demand Executive Order
Reacting to the directive, telecom operators, though appreciative of the gesture, had expressed worry that such pronouncement might be an exercise in futility. According to them, the high level of incessant disruptions of telecoms activities across states, coupled with the wilful destruction of telecoms facilities by social miscreants, could only be addressed through the signing of an Executive Order by President Mohammadu Buhari, because of the legal backing that comes with such Orders.
   
Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said: “On the presidential pronouncement directing protection for all telecoms installations and infrastructure, this is a step in the right direction, we are grateful for this and as evident following the pronouncement that some states are reducing and some eliminating Right of Way (ROW) charges, it is now obvious that we have more stakeholders joining us in ensuring further development of telecommunications in Nigeria towards realising our National Broadband target. We are grateful to Mr. President and we earnestly look forward to an Executive Order backing this pronouncement.”

Stories from abroad
Several countries of the world have in the past or recently, deployed Executive Orders to address telecommunications challenges. This becomes a potent tool for addressing pressing issues that require urgent attention, for which enacting new laws may delay.
  
In the United States of America, for instance, the country signed its Executive Order for telecommunications EO 13010 on July 15, I996. The Order, among other things, protects its telecom infrastructure, seeing it as a national infrastructure that requires special protection from threats of any kind.
  
In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa December 2019 signed the Critical Infrastructure Protection Act, which repeals the apartheid-era National Key points Act of 1980 and provides for public-private cooperation in the identification and protection of critical infrastructure in which telecoms is central.
 
Why telecoms infrastructure should become CNI
The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said the benefits and the useful services the country is currently enjoying are being threatened by the spate of vandalisation of telecoms infrastructure across the country.

   
“We are worried that the vandalisation of telecoms infrastructure is slowing the pace of growth, contributing to poor quality of services. The vandalisation of infrastructure comes in several ways. Some vandals cut or destroy cables that provide services across geographical distances or communities. Some engage in the stealing of generators or diesels which are used to power base stations that make services available at all times.
  
“We have situations where local communities or individuals bar technical staff of the service providers from installing equipment or carrying out the repair on existing systems. We have situations where people engage in wilful destruction or damage of telecoms infrastructure to extort money from service providers.”
   
The Nigerian Coordinator, Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) and the former President, Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, had called on the Police, National Security Advisers to the President, and other security agents to assist the industry in the protection of Critical National Infrastructure (CNI) that ICT infrastructure.
  
“This will help improve QoS and reduce the costs of repairs in the industry to a nominal level,” he said. Teniola noted that the infrastructure that is being rolled out to support broadband services needs to be fully protected from vandalism, theft, and destruction and therefore the enforcement of the CNI under the Cybercrime bill needs to be enacted without any further delay.