Amidst several issues arising from the SIM registration suspension and its impacts on the sector, telecommunications forges ahead in the first quarter as the regulator rallied stakeholders for the implementation of the National Broadband Plan 2020-2025. SAMSON AKINTARO reports
One of the major events that shaped the ICT industry in the first quarter was the increased collaborative efforts spearheaded by the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to drive home the 70 per cent broadband penetration target for the country. While the suspension of new SIM registration had impacted the sector’s numbers in the first quarter, leading to a three per cent decline in broadband penetration, aside from the reduction in active mobile subscriptions, the telecoms regulator described this as a temporary setback, which would help determine the truly unique numbers in the country, thus further guiding it towards achieving the 70 per cent penetration target. From the structured virtual stakeholders’ engagement forum organised by the Association of Telecommunications Companies of Nigeria (ATCON) to the Anambra State Broadband Infrastructure Development Stakeholders Forum, the telecoms regulator drew home the need for more collaborations among all stakeholders in the quest to achieve ubiquitous broadband access. The industry also witnessed a near upheaval in the first quarter as the pent up disagreement between banks and telecom operators erupted again. However, the technology startup ecosystem brightened hope for technology development in Nigeria as more foreign funding flowed into the country.
NNBP, one year after
The Nigeria National Broadband Plan (NNBP 2020-2025) was launched by President Muhammadu Buhari on March 19, 2020, just a week before the lockdown occasioned by COVID-19. The shutting of the economy, no doubt, affected the timelines in the plan. However, NCC said an appreciable level of progress had been recorded between then and the first quarter of this year, especially in the area of collaborations and policies driving the implementation. Speaking at a virtual stakeholders’ engagement forum organised by ATCON in March, the Executive Vice Chairman of NCC, Prof. Umar Danbatta, said the Commission had already commenced implementation of the broadband plan with the directive issued to Infraco licensees to commence the immediate roll-out of optic fibre cables (OFC) as contained in their licence agreements to all the LGA headquarters by giving them freehand to start from viable areas and gradually move to unviable areas, while the expected counterpart funding from government is being finaliseded. “An equally important consolidation in the area of spectrum availability is the Commission’s finalisation of the spectrum trading guidelines as well as our collaboration with NigComSat that will make available 400MHz of prime spectrum for Next Generation Network deployment in the near future,” he said. The NCC boss added that collaboration with state governments had also seen the adoption of the N145/m or outright waiver Right-of- Way (RoW) by six state governments, adding, however, that more needed to be done by the states and local governments to ensure full adoption and cascading of the decision for implementation. “This, notwithstanding, the Commission will not relent in its effort towardds addressing the issue of RoW,” he added. Danbatta said the Commission’s regulatory thrust towards enabling national roaming, approval of e-SIM and 5G trials have also aggregated the efforts of the industry players towards achieving the set target. “I wish to assure you that the Commission shall continue to proactively provide the necessary regulatory interventions, which will facilitate the achievement of not only the 70 per cent broadband penetration target but other associated targets as well which will truly transform our economy into a digital economy,” he told the stakeholders.
Highlighting some of the key targets set in the National Broadband Plan, Danbatta said the NBP 2020- 2025 had raised the performance bar for the whole telecom industry, however, being a document crafted by experts and executives, there is no reason why it cannot be achieved to put Nigeria on a firm pedestal of nations with broadband access. “The Nigerian National Broadband Plan is, without doubt, an ambitious document with targets set that was developed jointly by critical stakeholders in the telecoms and IT sectors of Nigeria. “These stakeholders comprising of government and private sector executives, experts, managers, associations, and MDAs represent the who is who of the telecom & IT sectors and they are people with firm believe and optimism as well as assurance that the set targets are practically achievable,” he said. Some of the targets of the NBP 2020-2025, he said, included achieving 15Mbps & 25Mbps internet speed in rural and urban areas respectively by 2025; interconnection of 90 per cent of all LGA’s by fibre; 70 per cent Population penetration, 100 per cent of Tertiary Institutions to be within 5Km of a fibre PoA; 60 per cent of all telecom towers to be connected by fibre; connection of one major hospital or General hospital per LGA via fibre; reduction of average cost of data to N390/Gb or less and establishment of at least one local assembly or manufacture of smart devices; reduction of RoW to N145/m, among others. The NCC boss noted that from the targets, it was obvious that both government, the industry and other stakeholders needed to aggregate their potentials and expertise to achieve them. At another broadband forum in Anambra, Danbatta said the Commission had always encouraged governments to include telecommunications infrastructure like ducts and others as they plan their cities and towns. “A well-planned city is one of the keys to the digital economy, a planned city anticipates future development, opens new revenue streams for government and safeguards roads, water pipes, bridges and other infrastructure from unnecessary destruction and re-adjustments to fit-in additional infrastructure in the future,” he said.
ATCON lauds NCC
Acknowledging the efforts of the telecoms regulator so far in the implementation of the broadband plan, the President of ATCON, Ikechukwu Nnamani, while speaking at the forum, commended the executive vice chairman of the Commission “for the work he has done over the years in promoting broadband penetration in the country, especially with the facilitation of the smooth operation of the Infraco class of license with the core objective of ensuring broadband infrastructure gets to every major city within the country.” While also appreciating CEOs of telecom companies in the country, he commended them for “making right decisions to put the industry on continuous growth trajectory and who helped get Nigeria out of the recent economic recession.” “I like to use this opportunity to appeal that you don’t rest on your oars, because the realisation of the 70 per cent broadband penetration target depends considerably on you in the coming years,” he added.
Telcos vs banks
Meanwhile, the lingering tussle between the telecoms operators and commercial banks came into the limelight again in the first quarter of this year as the telecom operators threatened to disconnect the financial institutions from their Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD). The disagreement that first came to public knowledge in 2019 centred around payment for the rendered services to bank customers through the telecoms infrastructure. While the banks had last year proposed an end-user billing to the telecom operators, thereby shifting their responsibility of paying for the service to the costumers, the telecom regulator forbade the telcos from charging the customers. The impasse between last year and this year led to an accumulated debt of over N42 billion, according to the telecom operators. This prompted the threat to withdraw access to the use of USSD from banks with effect from March 12, 2021. However, an intervention of the Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Pantami, in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria and NCC averted service withdrawal, which would have negatively affected millions of bank customers and telecoms subscribers and disrupted the financial industry.
More funding for tech start-ups
Smarting up from the impact of COVID-19, which caused a dip in investments last year, the Nigerian tech start-up echo system began the year on an impressive note, attracting series of funding from foreign investors