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Telecoms’ challenges persist

By Adeyemi Adepetun
22 February 2017   |   4:28 am
The advent of telecommunications and its growing access will continue to drive development process across all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the impact cuts across manufacturing...

A telecoms mast

The advent of telecommunications and its growing access will continue to drive development process across all sectors of the economy. Indeed, the impact cuts across manufacturing, banking, education, agriculture, government, and lately, the political landscape.

In fact, recent World Bank studies indicate that for every $1 invested in telecommunications infrastructure, more than $6 is generated in returns on local employment and general economic growth. Revenue from telecommunication services alone was estimated at $1.2 trillion as at 2002.

Telecommunications networks are now making it possible for developing countries to participate in the world economy in ways that were hitherto not possible.

In Nigeria, 15 years after the issuance of digital mobile licences in a liberalised telecoms regime, the country’s physical landscape is now an improvement from what it was. A massive amount of infrastructure has been erected across the country by the telecoms industry. The sector, as at last year is said to worth $68 billion.

Base Transceiver Stations (BTS) or base stations are probably the most visible of such infrastructure. BTS is the equipment, which helps to connect mobile devices such as phones and tablets with the network operators. It has a tower on which radio antennae and other devices are mounted.

It has always been a struggle to erect a BTS infrastructure. In the early days, for instance, routes were uncharted and it was not uncommon to see engineers physically creating roads through virgin terrain, for the purpose of installing BTS. There were also the sundry permits that needed to be obtained from government and its agencies.

However, the industry has managed to put infrastructure on the ground nationwide. At a Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) forum in Lagos last year, it was disclosed that the country has about 29,000 BTS spread across the six geo-political zones.

But installing a base station now is more difficult than it ever was. About 10 years ago, a new base station could be up and running from the time an application is made to government to when it is eventually installed and activated, within three weeks. This way, with several hands acting in concert, it was possible to erect multiple base stations across cities simultaneously.

From The Guardian findings, the process of erecting a BTS has become ensnared by bureaucracy such that it could take up to six months or more to erect a single base station. Perhaps, this should put in perspective the enormity of the logistic challenge that has entailed erecting 29,000 disparate BTS across the country including on highways and inter-city roads.

Today, the challenge of Right of Way (RoW) has continued to contend with the roll out of infrastructure by the operators, with states charging as much as N6,500 per meter against the N145 agreed fee in 2013 for every build out.

But as the quality of service on our mobile devices has since shown, 29,000 BTS for a country like Nigeria, is grossly inadequate. Not only is demand consistently growing, demand patterns are also changing.

Whereas voice used to pose the highest demand on network capacity a few years ago, today, data is almost rivaling voice.
With the growing evolution towards mobile broadband and increasing disposition of different demographic segments to consuming data services, network capacity demand patterns have changed considerably, with attendant pressures on the quality of service.

It is in order to provide mobile broadband services the networks have long introduced third generation base stations (3G base stations) while continuously upgrading the legacy second-generation base stations (2G base stations).

In Nigeria, some networks have since begun installing fourth generation (4G) base stations. The 4G is an improvement on the 3G base stations, both in terms of capacity and quality.

At the NCC forum, it was noted that the country required about 80,000 BTS to meet the growing demands for telecommunications services.

While the challenge of infrastructure roll out is there, the act of vandalism has subverted the growth profile. The Guardian reliably gathered that fibre cut menace increased by 60 per cent in 2016; about 1,200 fibre cuts recorded in 2015. Besides, about 10,000 generating sets were said to have been lost to miscreants in the year.

While the industry still grapples with shortage of BTS, The Guardian gathered through the Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), that the existing BTS are powered with about 50,000 generating sets. ALTON is the industry body for all telecommunications companies and service providers.

Furthermore, The Guardian gathered that a direct operator, like MTN or Globacom, uses a 15-20KVA generating set, while those on co-location run on a 27KVA set, which are changed sometimes every two years depending on wear and tear forces.

Meanwhile, efforts to bring in equipment, The Guardian gathered it is currently being frustrated by the current foreign exchange (forex) regime in the country.

According to the President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Olusola Teniola, the steep devaluation of Naira against the dollar is serious and impacting negatively on the Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) programmes of many operators in the industry.

With persisting forex challenges, the sector is also facing serious interconnect debt, estimated at about N30 billion, due to inactive status of majority of the debtors, who are mainly Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), fixed line networks operators as well as Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Already, about 14 licensed telecoms operators who are among the debtors of interconnect charges have been declared inactive by the NCC.

Investigations also revealed that various active operators failed to settle their interconnect payment for calls initiated on their networks and terminating on competitors’ networks, a development that has increased the interconnectivity debt profile in the country.

Bearing the highest consequences of the interconnectivity debt is MTN Nigeria, being owed the lion’s share of N13.6 billion.