President of the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON), Mr. Lanre Ajayi, spoke with Amaka Eze on the service quality of network operators in the country, among other burning industry issues. Excerpts:
What is your assessment of the Nigerian IT industry in 2012?
The ICT industry in Nigeria did fairly well in 2012 but with a lot of room for improvement. The teledensity continues to grow, the number of telephone lines in Nigeria exceeded a threshold of 100 million lines during the year. However, the International Internet bandwidth continues to witness appalling utilisation, with a capacity utilisation less than 5 per cent. Our capacity to develop software applications particularly for export has not been impressive but there are isolated success stories. Our desire to develop an outsourcing industry remains largely unfulfilled and must be looked into in 2013.
Quality of service appears unattainable despite efforts put in place by the operator, regulators and other stakeholder. How should it be handled in your opinion?
Good network quality is not unattainable. The present poor quality of the network emanates essentially from inadequacy of network capacity to cope with the volume of traffic of the subscribers. There is a need to increase the capacity of the network to accommodate more traffic.
To do this, more base stations have to be built, more fibre cable has to be buried underground. The operators have to be supported to accomplish all of these. There would be a need to grant permission for right of ways more speedily, there would be a need to eliminate multiple taxation so that funds would be directed at expanding networks rather than being used to pay multiple taxes and there would be a need to protect the infrastructures that are being built so that funds that would be required to expand the network are not used to fix vandalised infrastructure.
Government should provide the much-needed protection for telecoms operations; infrastructure of telecom operations should be classified as part of our national assets and should be accorded first line protection by the government. On human capital, there is the need for policy direction on local content in ICT for better knowledge retention. Nigeria should begin to play a leading role in telecom expertise in the area of outsourcing of Business Process Operations (BPO).
Most networks were built in a hurry, which is why we have poor service quality. What do you advise operators?
Well, they have no choice than to build more infrastructure and increase capacity which is what they doing at the moment. So it is good that effort is being made to increase capacity, which is not much to accommodate the numbers subscribers. Hopefully, the network would stabilise soon.
In 2013, how would you suggest the industry increases private computer usage and fast track broadband penetration?
A major way to fast track broadband penetration is to stimulate demand for broadband access by promoting the deployment of applications that are relevant to Nigerian users and add values to their life.
Such applications may include ones that make commerce available online (e-Commerce), ones that make government services available online (e-Government), ones that make health services delivery available online (e-Health), ones that make learning available online (e-Learning) and so on. Government should take a lead by making government services available online. To increase private computer (PC) usage, there must be a deliberate effort to facilitate computer ownership for Nigerian students. I believe it is most appropriate for government to provide all Nigerian students from primary school level to university level with mobile computers, for instance tablets, which could be used not only to access the internet but to store the electronics version of the books students read in schools. This should be a priority for the government. The potential impact on the future of the students and by extension on the future of the country is enormous. I believe this is the fastest route to leapfrogging Nigeria into a developed economy.
Our growth rate is largely determined by the level of development of our human capacity. Contrary to what some people may think, funding for such a project may not be as difficult as it looks. There are a number of funding sources that could be re-directed to the project. These include funds from USPF, NITDEF, SURE-P, PTDF, etc.
A presidential committee was inaugurated by President Goodluck Jonathan to facilitate the development of broadband strategy and roadmap for national development. Do you think IT practitioners were fully represented in this committee?
I believe the committee is made up of competent people and they are capable of delivering a good broadband strategy, with the support of all concerned stakeholders.
NigComSat 1R was re-launched into space about one year ago. In your opinion, do you think NigComSat 1R has been able to meet expectations so far?
Well, to get the reality, you would need to talk to NigComSat who will be in a better position to give the details and tell how much subscribers they have, what capacity they have deplored and the what percentage of interest they have made. In my opinion, however, what I see is that nothing is been done. Although my perception may not be the reality, but I have not really seen many people who have told me that they use NigComSat 1R. I have contact with a couple of internet service providers, who I talk to regularly and none have told me that they use NigComSat capacity. This tells me that it is not taken up by most people. I wouldn't know if that story is different in other parts of the country; that is to say if people are buying the NigComSat capacity from outside the country because the NigComSat coverage encompasses all other African countries. It may therefore be possible that they are selling in other parts of Africa, but in Nigeria, I've really not seen or met anyone that is using the NigComSat capacity, and that is my perception. Where the problem lies however is that is my perception is truly the reality, then there is cause for worry.
Other stakeholders have opined that a lot of tax payers' money has been deployed into the deorbited NigComSat 1 and the re-launched NigComSat 1R, yet no impact is felt. Rather NigComSat is pushing for a bill that will make it an agency of its own, do you think NigComSat is on the right track?
No, absolutely not. When an investment of that amount is put in place, instead of concentrating efforts to marketing the infrastructure that is on ground, effort is been directed to some other directions, and that is wrong. In fact that maybe one of the reasons why NigComSat capacity is not being felt. NigComSat needs to be focused. When an organisation is not focused on what it should be doing, then the investment could be wasted. That is all I can see. The effort should be in marketing what is the satellite's capacity? NigComSat is a company of the federal government, and their task is to endeavour to make money for the government or at best utilise the capacity for the benefit of Nigerians. Focusing on processes and the task ahead would be the best for NigComSat, because those other things are distractions. The focus should be making use of the infrastructure to the benefit of the people, and making gains on the investment they government has made.
How do you see NigComSat playing a critical role in the transformation of the internet space?
The way I think NigComSat can make an impact is to make available their space capacity to Nigerians at an affordable rate. If their pricing is competitive one can be sure that internet service providers, companies, organisations, agencies and so on would utilise that service. If the process of accessing the capacity is even, if the processes are not cumbersome, people would approach them and buy their capacities. Also if people are aware that those capacities are in place, and they know how to subscribe to it, people would buy it. Presently, most people don't even know that the NigComSat 1R capacity exists, or how to subscribe to it. Even those who know, like some ISPs don't even know how to go about subscribing to it. A lot of people don't even know the pricing so they don't even know how to compare their price with others. NigComSat must make all these information public and available; what is the price, how to subscribe, or to connect, how to go about it. If people find them to be competitive, they would subscribe to it. But if they are laid back or if their prices are uncompetitive, people would not go there.
NigComSat was seen as a messiah come to save Nigerians through the reduction of bandwidth cost, how do you see them making capacity available in rural areas?
Nigcomsat must partner with ISPs to go into those areas. There is capacity and the ISPs are on the ground to sell to the end users, thus NigComSat should sell their services to the ISPs who would now deploy it to the urban and rural areas.
NigComSat 1R still doesn't have a backup satellite. In the event of a breakdown, do you see that as an issue?
Honestly, I don't see it as a major issue. It is appropriate and nice to have a backup, but in a situation where they have not been able to get a backup, they can make good use of what is available. Also, they can have a partnership with other satellite companies as backup, and there will be a fee to that. They cannot say that it is until they have a perfect portfolio of several satellites that they can start marketing and doing proper sales. Tax payers' money has been invested in this business, and it must be properly utilised.
How else can the communications technology ministry be more effective in the penetration of ICT in the country?
The major role of the ministry is to set developmental goals, develop policies and strategies of accomplishing those goals and ensure compliance with government policies, through effective monitoring. The goal of tremendously increasing internet penetration in Nigeria, through the twin strategies of making government services available online and the provision of Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), such as tablets, to Nigerian students should be a top priority of this government.