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Insecurity, FX challenges slow rural telephony drive

By Adeyemi Adepetun, Assistant Editor, ComTech
20 October 2022   |   4:32 am
Expansion of telecommunications services, especially to rural communities, has slowed down drastically in the country, owing to various challenges plaguing the over $70 billion industry.

Telecom operation

• Only 11 states comply with FG’s N145/linear meter for RoW
• 40% drop in rural telecoms investments since COVID-19 outbreak
• NCC, govs meet in Abuja today to discuss broadband deployment
• 25m Nigerians yearn for basic telephony service
• ALTON advocates discriminatory pricing for hostile states

Expansion of telecommunications services, especially to rural communities, has slowed down drastically in the country, owing to various challenges plaguing the over $70 billion industry.

A major GSM operator confirmed to The Guardian, yesterday, that telecoms investment in rural areas have plummeted by as much as 40 per cent since COVID-19 outbreak because of several challenges confronting service expansion.

It was gathered that while insecurity, which has climbed steadily in the last three years, remains the major headache, operators have begun to prioritise deployment areas with a focus on places with the highest Return on Investment (RoI).

This means that rather than investing in deprived remote localities with low usage capacity, operators are upgrading facilities in urban areas.

Besides, lack of access to foreign exchange (FX) and hostility in some states are other challenges confronting the expansion of services, especially to rural communities. The never-ending hitches posed by states’ Right of Way (RoW) charges have equally found louder expression among the challenges service providers have had to cope with in deploying the infrastructure.

With these challenges increasing daily, The Guardian gathered that the last time operators extended services to any rural area in the country was pre-COVID era.

Statistics from the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) show that 114 communities with some 25 million Nigerians residing in those areas don’t have access to basic telephony service.

Checks by The Guardian showed that 70 per cent of the 114 communities are located in the North, 20 per cent in the East and 10 per cent are scattered in the Southwest.

For instance, despite the level of development in Lagos, the state still has 6.63 per cent access gaps. Abia has 1.99 per cent of unserved area; Akwa Ibom has 3.83 per cent; Imo, 4.13 per cent and Ekiti 7.82 per cent.

Borno State has the highest access gap of 83.41 per cent in the country. This is followed by Yobe with 81.54 per cent; Zamfara, 79.23 per cent; Taraba, 77.35 per cent and Sokoto with 75.52 per cent.

According to a report, titled: ‘A Compendium of Taxes, Levies and Fees by State Governments on Telecoms Operators in Nigeria and Its Effect on the National Digital Economy Agenda’, Adamawa has 72.6 per cent access gaps; Anambra, 14.99 per cent; Bauchi, 71.3 per cent; Bayelsa, 40.05 per cent; Benue, 50.7; Cross River, 49.99 per cent; Delta, 27.85 per cent; Ebonyi, 13 per cent; Ondo, 22.86 per cent; Oyo, 58.7 per cent; Ogun, 13.07 per cent; Rivers, 19.86 per cent; FCT, 43.55 per cent and Edo, 31.25 per cent.

Today, industry sources say only MTN is still investing, especially having recently helped Nigeria to join South Africa and Kenya as countries that have deployed the Fifth Generation (5G) network.

While some 81 locations in Lagos are currently enjoying 5G, MTN, however, promised to launch the network in six other cities – Abuja, Port Harcourt, Ibadan, Kano, Owerri and Maiduguri.

As at September, out of the over 300 million connected lines, active telephone users were 209.9 million, this is even as the country’s teledensity increased to 109.9 per cent. Internet users via the GSM platforms, according to NCC, were 151.7 million and broadband penetration was 44.6 per cent, which is enjoyed by some 85.2 million people in the country.

Interestingly, the feats were achieved by prior investments in some infrastructure in the country. Specifically, as at December 2021, the total Base Stations owned by mobile telecom operating firms was put at 38,123. It increased from 36,998.

Land fibre deployment was 47,128.7km. MTN has 14,612km, while GLO has 13,233km. Airtel has 14,454km just as EMTS and NTEL have 4,650km and 180km respectively. Submarine fibre deployment in kilometre is put at 27,818.3km.

Data further showed that Lagos, Ogun, Oyo, Rivers and FCT were the states with highest number of telecoms towers, which are 5,851; 2,418; 2,049; 1,944 and 1,713 respectively.

On the other hand, the last six states with least tower infrastructure are Kebbi, Bayelsa, Ebonyi, Gombe, Yobe and Zamfara with 415; 367; 363; 356; 316 and 283 Base Transceiver Station (BTS) respectively.

The 36,998 telecoms towers are about 50,000 shot of the estimated 80,000 BTS the country is said to need to guarantee to improve in quality of telephony service in the country.

At a forum in Lagos recently, NCC disclosed that the country requires investments in 120,000 additional kilometres of Fibre Optic Cables to meet the New National Broadband Plan (NNBP) 2025 target.

Indeed, the shortage of telecoms infrastructure is contributing significantly to poor quality of service as it has led to a rise in drop calls, aborted and undelivered short message service (SMS) and countless failed calls.

While 5G coverage is still very minute in the country, NCC, in the draft consultation document for deployment of the technology, disclosed that as at December 2019, coverage data showed that most rural areas only have access to 89.8 per cent 2G networks coverage, while 3G has coverage of over 74 per cent.

On Tuesday, during the Ministerial Performance Review Retreat in Abuja, Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, claimed that the current administration has improved 4G coverage across the country from 23 per cent to 77.52 per cent.

On the slow pace of expansion, Chairman, Association of Licensed Telecoms Operators of Nigeria (ALTON), Gbenga Adebayo, said access to the troubled region is a challenge to operators.

Adebayo said the safety of personnel due to the risk of kidnapping is impacting on maintenance as well as expansion plans in those regions.

He said issues of recent flooding experienced in many parts of the country poses another challenge to both underground and over-ground cables.

“We are now concerned about the impact on network quality of service in flood-affected areas,” the ALTON boss said government needs to pay some attention to the growing cost of doing business and provide every needed support for the industry.

“An example is a need for access to foreign exchange to service growing international contractual obligations,” he stated.

He stressed that there’s significant growth in Fintech, which is largely dependent on ICT infrastructure .

“The issues around USSD debt by the banks may become a major escalation and when operators withdraw USSD services to non-paying institutions, it might throw the entire Fintech sector into a major situation that would impact negatively on the growth recorded.”

Adebayo, at an earlier forum, had hinted at plans by members to introduce discriminatory pricing, following what he described as persistent harassment from some state governments, which he described as “hostile states,” which see telecoms players as a cash cow.

Corroborating Adebayo’s claims on the menace of insecurity in the country, a senior official in one of the telecoms firms, who preferred anonymity, said the major challenge slowing expansion, especially to rural areas in the country is insecurity.

According to him, so many areas are without government forces. “For example some localities in Kaduna, Zamfara, Yobe and Katsina have been plagued with activities of bandits and terrorists.

“So, no operator would consider going to those areas. Why do you think the much-talked-about Infrastructure Companies (InfraCos) have refused to move to site for almost three years now?”

The official said the challenge of insecurity is seriously affecting rollout plans, stressing that even in areas with infrastructure, operators are not getting access.

According to him, the loss of those rural areas will mean opportunity for the urban. “This has impacted our rural spending as money to be deployed to those areas will be deployed to other areas, which equally guarantees huge RoI.”

At a telecoms forum in Lagos, the Head, Sales, FibreOne Broadband, Kehinde Joda, revealed that of the 36 states, only 11 governors have complied with the Federal Government’s RoW levy of N145/per linear meter.

Stressing that other governors need to key into the agreement, Joda said until states understand the end benefits of how broadband and other telecoms service would open up their states economically, “expansion of services would be greatly limited.”

According to him, these are challenges that would not guarantee an expansion of services to rural areas.

Some of the states that complied with the RoW levy include Ekiti, Imo, Katsina, Plateau, Kwara, Kaduna and Anambra, among others.

A Tier 2 telecoms official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said no operator would deploy resources to areas that are challenged or with little or no RoI.

According to him, expansion and coverage of rural areas require major grants to those ready to go there.
MEANWHILE, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has also set agenda for rural connectivity in Nigeria. ITU said it is working with the Nigerian Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy to ensure that rural communities in the country have access to the Internet.

Newly elected Secretary-General of the union, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, said only 50 per cent of rural communities in Africa are connected, hence, the need to work with governments to bridge the connectivity gap.

Specifically, she said the partnership with the Federal Government would ensure that more women in rural areas have access to the Internet. According to her, when more rural women have access to the Internet, their productivity would increase.

TODAY, in Abuja, the NCC has assembled all governors to discuss challenges plaguing the sector, especially broadband.

The meeting, which is the maiden edition of the Broadband Technical Awareness Forum for Governors (BTAF), will hold at the Congress Hall of the Transcorp Hilton, Hotel in Abuja with the theme, ‘State Broadband Coordinating Councils: Potentials and Possibilities’, will appraise the Nigerian National Broadband Plan (NNBP) 2020-2025, which targets 70 per cent broadband penetration and to cover 90 per cent of the population.

With the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Prof. Isa Pantami, playing host to the seminal assemblage of governors under the auspices of the Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF), some strategic members of the State Executive Council, telecom operators, infrastructure companies (InfraCos), strategic partners, investors and other critical stakeholders, will brainstorm on how Nigeria can achieve the expectations of Nigeria’s digital economy agenda.

NCC board members, led by the Chairman, Prof. Adeolu Akande, and the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer (EVC/CEO) of the Commission, Prof. Umar Danbatta, will participate at the BTAF, whose overarching objective is to promote the establishment of State Structures required for sustainable broadband infrastructure development at the State and Local Government Council levels, thereby, addressing hindrances to the Federal Government’s drive to achieve available, accessible and affordable broadband services for Nigeria’s economy.

The Forum is expected to affirm the commitment of the government to broadband structure and last-mile projects, particularly the economic viability of broadband deployments beyond the cities, with a strategic focus on funding models and procedures for remarkable and measurable impact. There will be a special panel session involving governors and development-focused partners both at local and international levels.