The aviation sector regulator, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), last week, threatened to demolish 8,805 masts belonging to some banks and mobile telecommunications firm, Globacom. This, NCAA said, is because the banks and telcom firm are running their networks and providing interconnectivity to millions of subscribers without Aviation Height Clearance (AHC) Certificate, thereby jeopardising safety of air navigation. Even to a layman, NCAA’s planned action is a beguiled threat to the already fragile security of the country as the communication and networking infrastructure has come to bond so many things. We appreciate the fact that so far, in trying not to raise more dusts, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) has approached the issue maturely by reporting the threat to the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA).
The pronouncement on its own has generated reactions, not just from the telecom stakeholders, but members of the public, who also feel it would amount to effrontery of sort for such step to be taken without considering the wide ranging negative effect on the country’s security and socio-economic sphere in general.
While not attempting to play the role of an advocate for any of the parties involved in the matter, it is, however, very important to first recognise the fact that no matter how important an infrastructure is, including that of telecommunication, which is listed as critical national security infrastructure, the aviation safety rule of any nation must also not be compromised. As it stands globally, any structure, whether temporary or permanent, which has the potential to endanger aviation in navigable airspace, or has the potential to interfere with the operation of navigation or surveillance systems, is practically considered an obstacle.
What has indeed played out since the emergence of mobile telecommunication system in the country as far as right of way is concerned shows lack of planning and synergy in some respect as this is not the first time the telecom operators would be having problem with agencies and government over mast erection and laying of fibre optic cables.
As far back as 2004, telecommunications service providers have geared up for a big fight with Lagos State government over the state Infrastructure Maintenance and Regulatory Agency Bill. Even as recent as 2018, almost 15 years after GSM came into the country, Taraba State government, despite the raging insecurity in the state, still shut down some facilities belonging to the service providers over environ-mental impact assessment issues. Also, Kogi State recently shut down masts belonging to a telco. All of these show that it is either there are no standards for the facilities to thrive or that the telecom sector is seen as cash cow that must be milked at the slightest opportunity.
The fear that the threat currently poses to the nation is that while NCAA is empowered by law to ensure safety of the country’s airspace, its action, if not properly thought through, could ground the country to a halt and put the entire security architecture in danger and worsen already bad situation. Available report revealed that many of the masts have been allowed to stay in critical places in and around airports despite warnings from NCAA that they could cause accident.
This, we consider not so healthy, even though the aviation regulatory agency might have deliberately looked elsewhere while the rules were being flouted. Not a few believe that apart from the threat of unduly exposing the country to security risk as the action would trigger communication blackout, Federal Government’s financial inclusion target and emergence of high level cashless society would also be threatened as financial institutions depend mostly on the telecoms infrastructure to drive the process. No one is in conflict with NCAA’s power.
It derives its powers to demolish such objects blocking airways from the Nigeria Civil Aviation Regulations (NigCARS) Part 184.108.40.206.3.1 which stipulates that: “No person or organisation shall put up a structure (permanent or temporary) within the navigable airspace of Nigeria unless such a person or organisation is a holder of Aviation Height Clearance Certificate granted under this regulation.”
In all of this, however, the big question remains: Why did NCAA allow a situation to degenerate before blowing the whistle on the culprits? A mast is not erected in a few hours. So many things, from locating and identifying site to installation proper, which takes days or weeks, go into erecting one. Why wait till over 8,000 masts had been fully installed before asking the organisations concerned to come get clearance? Putting this question into proper perspective also gives credence to the position of Association of Licensed Telecommunications Operators of Nigeria (ALTON) that NCAA is only trying to rake in funds from its latest threat.
In order not to be going back and forth over issues that should not result to major national crisis, we advise that synergy and proper planning should always guide the process from the beginning. Specifically, in the current dispensation, we call on NCAA and ALTON to put heads together and arrive at a common ground, so as to forestall any likely threat to the nation’s security and financial apparatus due to the planned decommissioning.
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