This Day (Lagos)

31 January 2013

Nigeria: What Is Nigcomsat-1R Bringing to the Table?

Amaka Eze evaluates the achievements of the NigComSat-1R communications satellite, on which there was so much expectations after its launch into orbit 13 months ago

NIGCOMSAT-1R, a replacement for NigComSat-1, Nigeria's communications satellite, which was successfully launched in 2007, but de-orbited barely a year in November 2008, due to malfunction of Solar Array Deployment Assembly (SADA) was projected to enhance broadband penetration in Nigeria.

The initial contract to build the satellite was signed in 2004. It became the first African geosynchronous communication satellite, when it was launched at 16:01 GMT on 13 May 2007, aboard a Chinese Long March 3B carrier rocket, from the Xichang Satellite Launch Centre in China.

The spacecraft was operated by Nigerian Communication Satellite (NigComSat) Limited. On November 11, 2008, NigComSat-1 failed in orbit after running out of power due to an anomaly in its solar array.

On March 24, 2009, the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, NigComSat Limited and CGWIC signed a further contract for the in-orbit delivery of the NigComSat-1R satellite. NigComSat-1R is also a DFH-4 satellite with improvements over the previous satellite, and was delivered in the last quarter of 2011 as a replacement for the failed NigComSat-1. It was successfully launched on December 19, 2011.

The satellite, which was re-launched in December 2011 heralded a new dawn for the country as a critical ICT backbone infrastructure and was expected to support the growth of the nations' broadcast and telecoms industry and aid in the crucial achievement of Nigeria's vision 20:2020.

NigComSat-1R was seen as the messiah which has come to further enable intelligence gathering and strengthen security in Nigeria, Africa and beyond; as well as drive National ICT revolution in providing revenue diversification for the Nation and offer cost effective solution and affordable access to meet Nigeria's telecommunications, broadcast, aviation, maritime, defence and security needs.

A high level of expectancy was thus bestowed on the re-launched communications satellite by stakeholders and experts in the ICT industry after its successful return; having disappointed doubters who ruled out the prospects of a re-placement and overcome the troubles of the first crash.

Chances were that the satellite once it returns to the market, where there are foreign-based private sector operators, which offer the same services at higher rates, would compete favourable to support the growth of the nations' communications industry.

Performance Vis-à-vis Expectations

Experts who hitherto hailed the re-launch of NigComSat 1R, and expressed optimism towards the satellites likelihood to drive development in the ICT sector of the nation's economy have continued to express their unreserved disappointment towards the poor performance of the satellite 13 months after it was re-placed in space.

Speaking to THISDAY, President of the Nigerian Internet Group, an organisation committed to the promotion of the Internet in Nigeria, Mr. Bayo Banjo, was of the opinion that the communications satellite has performed below expectations 13 months after it was re-launched into the orbit.

According to him, the satellite had fared poorly in my opinion. "In practice and in real terms, I have not heard of any impact NigComSat 1R has made or any really serious customer it has. In short I can see no real impact at all."

Stating that he had personally not been able to get a definite quote on any of the supposed services offered by the communications satellite, Banjo stated that the stakeholders had continued to wonder the real purpose for the satellite from the way it was being handled.

"It was touted as a project that would make satellite service easily available and would save us valuable foreign exchange, because we could pay locally. It is an embarrassing failure as it has not brought the services to the people and if you take the amount of money spent on the satellite, vis-à-vis what has been collected on its supposed services, we are way in the red financially,"

"The company must work to offer cost effective solution and affordable access to meet Nigeria's telecommunications, broadcast and security needs, vis-à-vis what has been spent on its supposed services," he added.

President of ATCON, who doubles as the Managing Director of PINET Informatics and former President of the Nigeria Internet Group (NIG), Mr. Lanre Ajayi, who spoke to THISDAY added that it was very unfortunate that the first satellite, NigComSat 1R did not live long to communicate with Nigerians.

He stated that the government took a good decision in re-launching the satellite, in spite of the crash of NIGCOMSAT-1, they were not discouraged neither were they deterred.

According to him, the communication satellite was expected to benefit Nigerians as it rolls out its full service to the market as a gateway to Nigeria's achievement of a higher level of broadband penetration.

The commercial launch, he stressed was meant to invariably bring down the cost of bandwidth in the country, ensure easier access to broadband services nationwide, and boost telecoms, digital broadcasting, education, national security, economic development, amongst others.

The ATCON boss was however of the opinion that NigComSat 1R was yet to play its role because it had made no impact so far on the lives of the people in the urban areas, talk more those in the hinterlands and grass root areas.

"For those rural areas where the fibre optic cables cannot be laid on the terrace, and some of those difficult terraces which can only be reached economically and efficiently through the satellite, NigComSat is supposed to be visibly present."

Ajayi, who stated that his perception might not be the reality said: "I've really not seen many people who have told me that they use NigComSat 1R capacity to run their businesses weather in the city or rural areas."

He further said: "NigComSat will be in a better position to give the details and tell how much subscribers they have, what capacity they have deplored and what percentage of interest they have made, but in my own opinion as an expert I see nothing been done with the capacity.

Director-General, Paradigm Initiative of Nigeria (PIN) Mr. Gbenga Sesan, said: "I think NigComSat Limited said too much and made too many high-sounding promises at the re-launch one year ago. If we judge the re-launch based on what the Chief Executive Office, NigComSat Limited, Mr. Timasaniyu Ahmed-Rufai, said at the time, it will be easy to say that it hasn't fared well."

According to Sesan, "The Communications Company might be a victim of their own promises as I assume some progress should have been made by now towards consolidating the company's opportunities as providers of a much-desired service."

Sesan further stated that in July 2012, NigComSat announced a broadband service, but had spent more time trying to play at the level of companies they should be providing bulk services to. "Has the purpose been achieved?," he queried.

Quoting the NigComSat CEO in May 2012 to have said: "In simple terms, the satellite would be used to provide affordable and excellent Internet and Direct-To-Home (DTH) broadcast services to Nigerians," Sesan added that the satellite was yet to make any mark.

He said: "The company should stop pushing to be an agency. This is where the problem is. NigComSat could actually be a private sector player providing high-level services in various sectors, using the power of space technology that they have access to.

"Trying to become an agency is the dumbest move NigComSat has made since its debut, and I think the bill should be thrown out - and the CEO should be queried for wasting valuable legislative hours that should have been spent on, say, the cybercrime bill. They're probably trying to be the NASA of Nigeria, and I think that further exposes the confusion of the company's mandate."

He further said: "We already have a National Space Research & Development Agency, so I wonder what NigComSat's intentions are. Are they choosing the lazier option of being an agency instead of going out to compete as a major player?"

Controversy over NigComSat Bill

In recent months, a controversy broke out over the NIGCOMSAT Bill, which the Nigerian Communications Communication (NCC) said would undermine its position as the regulatory body of the telecommunications sector.

Similarly, the bill was opposed by the Communications Technology Ministry, which supervises NigComSat; the Ministry of Science and Technology, as well as other industry stakeholders.

Expressing their reservations about the bill, the Minister of Communications Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson's argument was that the bill had no role for her ministry and so NigComSat should be privatised, while Prof. Bassey Ewa- Henshaw simply laid claims to ownership of NigComSat by NASRDA where NigComSat emanated from.

Ewa-Henshaw stated that by passing the bill, the management of NigComSat Limited would be duplicating the duties of NASDRA and NCC, which was not only capable of embarrassing the nation but was against international norms and ethics.

On his part, the NIG boss who stated that NigComSat's push to be an agency is an act paramount to treason said queried why the company wanted to get grants from the government.

He said: "It is trying to negate the whole policy of privatisation. It is a clear indication the agency cannot survive on its own. In fact the first draft was an attempt to make it a regulator, I have copies of the first draft, were they wanted the agency to regulate satellite activity, irrespective of the role of the NCC.

According to him, this move would take us back 20 years and erode investor confidence. Jail is too good for the people attempting to do this, they should be tried for treason.

Ajayi also opined that the proposed bill on NigComSat Limited should be discontinued on the basis that the push for an agency could be undermining the performance of the company.

He said: "When an investment of that amount is put in place, instead of concentrating efforts to marketing the infrastructure that is on ground, effort is being directed to some other directions, and that is wrong; In fact that maybe one of the reasons why the satellites 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 a waste. The effort should be in marketing what is on ground. NigComSat is a company of the federal government, and their task is to make money for the government or at best utilise the capacity for the benefit of Nigerians."

He further said: "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.

NigComSat's Position

When THISDAY contacted NigComSat's Head of Communication, Mr. Sonny Aragba-Akpore, he acknowledged that the purpose of the satellite was still in the process of being achieved.

According to Aragba-Akpore, this is one year after the launch of the satellite. The satellite has an average life-span of 15 years and its journey has just started towards achieving among other things, to bridge the digital divide between Nigeria and other developed countries and to utilise the resources of the satellite for the socio-economic benefit of the nation through access to information technology and penetration of all unnerved and under-served areas.

He added that the commercial operations of the satellite commenced from the second quarter of 2012.

"So for the third and fourth quarter of 2012 NIGCOMSAT Ltd was able to meet 70 per cent of its target on both transponder and internet lease.

"The satellite has been faring very well beyond expectations after a successful In-Orbit-Test (IOT), which helped validate performance parameters of the payload (communication resources), and the satellite platform beyond what was initially specified," he said.

He stated that the technical staff members were working round the clock to ensure excellent management of the satellite in the orbit and various services were being rolled out via the satellite thus its future is very bright.

Aragba-Akpore further added that NigComSat on its own had ensured that satellite technology know-how had been transferred to some of its technical staff during the building and launch of NigComSat -1 and NigComSat-1R satellites.

He said: "In fact, in the purchase agreements, NigComSat ensured the inclusion of provisions to allow for transfer of technology to Nigerians in the process of manufacturing and launching the satellites. This has ensured the transfer of such technology to Nigerians. But a lot still need to be achieved for the full domestication of space technology in Nigeria by the appropriate agency with that mandate."

In his words, Aragba-Akpore defended the NigComSat Bill controversy thus: "NigComSat is already an agency of its own. It is not pushing to be an agency. The Federal Government in 2006, set up NigComSat as an agency then under the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology, but now, it has been moved under the Federal Ministry of Communications Technology. A Bill has been introduced by a private member of the House of Representatives to strengthen the operations of NigComSat Ltd through an enabling Act."

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