6 July 2015

Nigeria: Of Spectrum Hunger and Broadband Bread

opinion

There is no denying the fact that there is a growing need for spectrum bandwidth in Nigeria's telecoms sector. The various operators in the sector have their existing frequencies near the point of overloading, therefore the need for more spectrum to serve the expanding markets. Frequency spectrum provides the carriage for broadband services while broadband guarantees reliable access to the internet - a mutual correlation.

The postponement of the auction of the 2.6GHz spectrum licence by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has been stirring debates in this respect. On the one hand, are the operators who want the NCC to release and auction spectrum licences so as to speedily drive broadband deployment in urban and rural communities. They also want the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the global telecoms regulatory body, to allocate more mobile broadband spectra to Africa, especially Nigeria which needs more spectrum licences to deploy broadband services to a population hungry for fast internet connectivity in urban and rural areas.

On the other hand, are continental and global stakeholders who want Africa and Nigeria in particular, to demand for additional spectrum licences which can drive mobile broadband. Mortimer Hope, the Director, Spectrum and Public Policy, Africa, GSMA, thinks the shortfall in spectrum licences in Nigeria, especially the mobile broadband spectrum, is an issue that needs national attention. It has to be addressed through policy decision-making among governments. "Nigeria as a nation, has gone a long way in addressing issues with spectrum licences, and if the cost of spectrum remains too high, it will definitely affect productivity and cost of services because the operators who are paying for the spectrum licences will be spending so much money for licences alone and will not have enough money to build and expand their networks," Hope said.

The digital migration of broadcasting is envisaged to free up more spectrum frequencies for broadband. The challenge, however, remains that the broadcasting industry has not been seen to be seriously preparing towards achieving the objective of digitalisation. The envisaged target for digital switch-over set for June 2015 has elapsed with even the pilot project meant to have begun by March, 2015 in Jos, Plateau State, failing to materialise.

The ITU 2015 World Radio Communication Conference (WRC-15) billed for Geneva in November, is expected to discuss the shortfall in mobile broadband spectrum, to enable the ITU assign more broadband spectrum licences to Nigeria and the rest of Africa. As Hope puts it, "the existing spectrum allocation in Africa is experiencing intense pressure since there is an exponential development in the use of several wireless devices in accessing the internet". In Nigeria, the number of people accessing the internet through their mobile phones peaked at 18.42 million - more than the population of many African countries in the last one year.

The shortfall in broadband spectrum in the country is a major concern to the NCC. The Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Dr. Eugene Juwah, has said the commission and industry stakeholders are optimistic that the digital dividend spectrum, which is the 700 MHz frequency band internationally adjudged to be very useful in deploying high-speed internet services, would add to the list of spectrum resources already pencilled down for auctioning to boost broadband provision in the country.

A more extensive broadband penetration will, therefore, culminate in more efficiency in critical sectors like commerce, education, health, governance and accounting systems, energy management, the electoral process (as was most significantly demonstrated by the deployment of card readers and electronic voting cards in the 2015 general elections), security operations, information dissemination and management, etc, thus enhancing GDP and general economic growth.

In the 21st Century world, no serious government or society undermines the power of ICT and broadband penetration on its economy. This is why the effort of the nation's telecoms watchdog, the NCC to increase broadband penetration by creating enabling business environment in the telecom sector, must be given a boost.

At the initial stage of digital mobile services in the country, the network operators had concentrated on voice protocol without giving much thought to data services. However, with the proliferation of data-consuming devices such as tablets and smartphones, the market for data services became ever more promising and competitive. This has forced many service providers to upgrade the data capacity of their networks. The only way to realistically and holistically address the growing need for data is to get broadband services running.

Today, banking services are as dynamic as they could ever be. Services not even contemplated in Nigeria before the last 10 years can now be taken for granted. Even non-banking institutions now perform pseudo banking transactions like fund transfers, not to mention payment of bills and utilities. Affordable internet services through broadband penetration would further boost online shopping and other economic activities and transactions.

The NCC, in consonance with the Ministry of Communications Technology, has initiated plans to, by 2018, increase five-folds, the broadband penetration in the country via National Broadband Plan which would enable network operators provide more quality services at cheaper rates to subscribers for easier and faster access to internet services. 2018 seems distant in ICT reckoning. But keeping eyes on the goal by the regulator and other stakeholders will take Nigeria to the target probably ahead of the time.

-Osagie is an electrical engineer based in Benin City.

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