23 January 2013

Nigeria: Broadband - a Bridge to the Digital Gap?

When the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) was introduced in Nigeria in 2001, many people then believed that the country has finally closed the digital gap.

As a result of the excitement, many Nigerians bought the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) cards for their handsets at the cost of over N15,000 per one.

With time, people begin to realise that the GSM cannot bridge the digital divide between Nigeria and the developed economies, some observers say.

They note that there is an urgent need for the broadband, a name given to systems designed for high-speed transmission of huge volume of electronic data, while also incorporating voice.

To achieve this, Mrs Omobola Johnson, the Minister of Communications Technology, set up a committee on August 25, 2011 to harmonise all existing policies governing the telecommunications industry.

The committee was mandated to synchronise all existing policies in the ICT sector into a single National ICT Policy.

The minister underscored the need to address the issue of the "Right-of-Way" if Nigeria truly wanted to attain the "broadband revolution."

Johnson, nonetheless, conceded that the procurement of a "Right-of-Way" was very expensive.

"Right-of-Way" entails obtaining of approval by telecommunication companies from relevant government agencies for the erection of base stations.

The minister, however, noted that the 50 per cent cost, which the issuance of "Right-of-Way" attracted in infrastructure deployment in the country, was the highest in the world today.

According to her, the maintenance of the infrastructure is also high due to vandalism, power problems and wanton theft after the infrastructure's deployment.

"No right thinking infrastructure provider will invest in the deployment of infrastructure if this situation prevails and we will continue to have tremendous underutilised capacity of international bandwidth," she said.

Johnson noted that in some states, the providers of broadband infrastructure had to contend with as many as seven Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) and local government councils to get permission to erect base stations or lay fibre-optic cables.

"Further work has to be done to remove the obstacles and constraints which state governments put in the way of the deployment of these infrastructure," she added.

She, nonetheless, stressed that the "speed of broadband service is bringing about innovations that were impossible at narrow and medium band speeds.

"Nigeria's path to a broadband policy takes into cognisance our local realities and context.

"Broadband connectivity for accelerated communication is now a sine qua non for any country that wants to remain globally competitive," she, however, added.

Nevertheless, Dr Eugene Juwah, the Executive Vice-Chairman, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), said that in the past two years, broadband had dominated global discussions in the telecommunications industry.

He noted that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) championed the broadband issue by setting up the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010.

He, nonetheless, stressed that Nigeria was not left out in the quest for broadband as the NCC was working very hard to take advantage of existing broadband technologies and services.

Juwah said that the NCC had adopted the "Open Access Model" to accelerate broadband development in the country.

He said that the model would unbundle the broadband infrastructure market structure into three layers, which comprised the passive, the active and the retail layers.

"This structure will ensure vibrancy in the market and prevent dominance, as no company taking part in the programme will be allowed to operate in more than two of the service layers.

"Implementation of this model will bridge existing gaps in broadband deployment, eliminate barriers in long-haul transmission, address last-mile issues.

"The model will reduce the price of bandwidth for end users, resuscitate fixed telephony and unlock the market for massive broadband usage in Nigeria," he said.

All the same, Mr Lanre Ajayi, the President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), said that the sector had performed well, using the yardstick of voice telephony penetration.

He said that in the last one year, the number of Nigerians being activated on voice telephony had continued to increase.

However, Mr Emmanuel Ekwuem, Chief Executive Officer of Teledom Group, said that what was witnessed in the telecommunications industry in the last one year was a continuation of what had been on ground.

"Nothing spectacular, nothing outstanding has happened in the last one year.

"But we are hoping that with the ICT policy, 2013 will usher in an era of vibrancy, an era of excitement, an era of enthusiasm, an era of patronage for 'assembled-in-Nigeria' ICT products," he said.

Ekwuem said that Nigerians had yet to get the full benefits of broadband, attributing the development to insufficient public awareness of what broadband was.

"Broadband revolution is a much bigger revolution, it is an extensive revolution but we have not even scratched the surface because of insufficient public awareness," he added.

Ekwuem stressed that broadband would facilitate e-government, e-learning, e-healthcare services, e-commerce, among others.

Sharing similar sentiments, Chief Deolu Ogunbanjo, President of the National Association of Telecommunications Subscribers (NATCOMS), said that data services, voice and other telecommunications services would be much better with broadband.

All the same, telecomm experts urge the government to harness the vast potential of broadband, saying it would help to reduce unemployment in the country, while boosting the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

While they welcome the harmonised National ICT Policy, they, nonetheless, appeal to the government to sustain efforts to develop the ICT sector.

NAN Features

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