Tolu Akinluyi, is an experienced telecoms professional whose career in the telecoms industry dates back to 2002 as the first mobile core network engineer of MTN Nigeria. Currently a Communications, Media and Technology Executive with Accenture, one of the global professional services companies, Akinluyi in this interview with Isaiah Erhiawarien, reflects on the key challenges facing players in the industry, including Nigeria’s likely sanctions for shifting the digital migration date.
You have been in the telecoms industry for many years, and as such have a full knowledge of the industry. Do you think the industry has actually grown as far as network capacity is concerned?
Since 2001, the telecommunications industry in Nigeria has experienced impressive growth which has been fuelled by the low teledensity before the advent of affordable mobile telephony in the country, the award of GSM licenses to new mobile telecoms operators, the emergence of business opportunities enabled by the mass proliferation of mobile connections, amongst other factors. For instance, in 2001 there were a total of about 867,000 connected lines nationally, with about 266,000 mobile connections. This number increased by over 10,000 per cent to over 150 million connections today, with about 135 million mobile connections, largely driven by the launch of GSM mobile services in Nigeria. In this period, the contribution of the telecoms industry to Nigeria’s GDP increased from 0.3 per cent in 2001 to 8.53 per cent. And then the also the National Bureau of Statistics, NBS, said that the total contribution of ICT industry to the GDP was stated at 10.13 per cent in 2012, with the telecoms sector accounting for about 82 per cent of this figure. This growth has also driven internet penetration in the country. Similarly, the International Telecommunications Union, ITU, over this same period said that internet penetration in Nigeria increased over 3000 per cent. And the NCC now reports that Nigeria has over 93 million mobile internet users however, it is important to note that whilst this figure is impressive, a lot of connections are not yet of sufficient speed to be categorised as broadband. This dramatic growth of the industry has caused growing pains.
Does that look like a serious challenge by your assessment?
The industry currently faces a series of business, technical and regulatory challenges which pose risks to long term sustainable growth. Whilst many of these challenges are already being faced in more mature markets globally, there are additional local market conditions which exacerbate the situation in Nigeria.
What are your thoughts about the provision of broadband access to Nigerians?
Let’s start with the definition of broadband. A widely accepted definition of broadband is a link capable of delivering internet access at a rate of at least 2 megabits per second (2Mbps). Broadband has become the “oxygen” of the information age. It is crucial in enabling Nigerians access the internet, which is the largest repository of information and knowledge. The ideal broadband supply chain comprises of international connectivity (via submarine cable links), a national backbone network, metropolitan access links, and the local access network (the last mile). The Nigerian government has developed a broadband plan which is aimed at increasing the broadband penetration rate from about 6% in 2012 to 30 per cent by 2018. In Nigeria, there are now multiple submarine cables on the shores of the country. These include the Glo-1, Main One, WACS and SAT3. However, all the cables are landed in Lagos therefore access to other points in the country is limited.
It is necessary to extend the cable systems to other coastal regions of Nigeria in order to ensure resiliency and security. The Nigerian Government therefore has a big role to play in helping to drive this agenda. The backbone links in Nigeria have mostly been developed by individual telecoms operators to suit their business and technical requirements whereas in many other mature markets these were developed by Government owned incumbent operators and later unbundled to ensure open access. As a result, there is an abundance of connectivity on certain key routes, whilst many routes in the country still do not have connectivity. Furthermore, the networks owned by the different operators are not interconnected and therefore not as resilient as possible. The Nigerian government/NCC must follow through on its plans to promote seamless interconnectivity and open access infrastructure sharing amongst operators.
In Nigeria, the last mile is mostly based on wireless technology as a result of the low fixed line teledensity in the country. Therefore most internet connectivity in Nigeria is done via wireless devices. While this helps to provide quick connections, wireless connectivity faces interference and speed challenges which make it less desirable that wired last mile connectivity. The broadband plan must therefore also address the need to provide a mechanism to facilitate an increase in wired last mile connectivity. Regardless of the portion of the broadband supply chain, the challenges faced by operators are common and numerous. These include regulatory challenges associated with getting civil works permits, high costs involved in getting these permits, vandalism and theft of cables, and lack of reliable power resulting in the use of generators which is very expensive.
The National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) currently requires telecoms operators to submit impact assessments and get necessary approvals for the erection of telecoms base stations, in accordance with Environmental Impact Assessment regulations. This process has added to the already lengthy process involved in deploying telecoms base stations. It is necessary to find ways to speed up the EIA approval process to ensure that telecoms operators can deploy additional base stations quickly, efficiently and economically. The Government must take steps to remove the regulatory road blocks facing the operators, and continue to drive its broadband plan to ensure targets for broadband penetration can be achieved.
Concerning digital dividends, how best can these be realized in the country?
In 2006, the Nigerian government signed an agreement with the international telecommunications union, ITU, which mandated the digitisation of terrestrial TV signals by June 2015. This switch over from analogue to digital broadcasting is meant to free up analogue transmission frequencies, so that they could be re-used for mobile telephony and broadband access. The process has been completed in other western countries such as the UK, and is termed the digital dividend. The switchover will also lower the cost of transmission for TV signals and provide a host of benefits for consumers including a wider choice of programmes, more interactive services, and lower prices for interactive television receivers.
But the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, NBC, was unable to meet the deadline due to a lack of funds. Missing this deadline puts the country at risk of sanctions from the ITU in part because border countries to Nigeria that have already migrated from analogue to digital, are likely to get distorted broadcast signals from television stations located in border towns in Nigeria that are still transmitting analogue signals. Although the NBC has developed a plan to complete the switch over by June 2016, the Ministry of Communications and NCC must actively support the NBC to drive this plan to completion to avoid the ITU sanctions and to free up the frequencies for use by the telecom industry. Completion of this plan will therefore play a big role in enabling the broadband plan. It is important also for both of them to start developing plans to adequately utilise the digital dividend spectrum. These plans need to be developed now, to ensure that the spectrum is appropriately auctioned and effectively utilised as soon as possible, once it becomes available to help advance our national broadband agenda.
What in your views are the likely downsides for Nigeria’s non-completion of the 2.6GHz spectrum auction?
The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) recently suspended the auction of the 2.6GHz spectrum due to administrative challenges. This spectrum is set aside for the provision of advanced wireless broadband services. The advantages of this spectrum are numerous. They include, high spectral efficiency and throughput, global standardisation, and therefore better economies of scale and high capacity. These advantages make this spectrum highly desirable to telecoms operators, and therefore the Government must drive the completion of the auction process in order to deliver on the promise of the broadband plan. Furthermore, completion of this auction will help ensure a competitive environment in addition to widespread broadband at economic prices.
The poor quality of service is persisting in the telecom services market. Do you think this can be overcome by operators?
Since the inception of GSM mobile telephony in Nigeria about 14 years ago, Nigerian subscribers have complained about service quality issues. Complaints include frequently dropped calls, network unavailability, undelivered messages, as well as poor call quality. These problems have been exacerbated by the fact that there are no widely available alternatives to mobile telephony in the country, due to a limited number of fixed line connections. On the other hand, mobile operators have blamed a myriad of technical and environmental issues for the poor service quality. These include, lack of regular power supply, vandalism and theft of network infrastructure, insecurity in certain parts of the country, and over regulation. In a bid to address the concerns of telecoms operators, the NCC has announced that the Critical Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Infrastructure Bill which has been sponsored by the Federal Government will be passed before the end of the year. This bill is expected to put mechanisms in place to ensure that Telecoms Infrastructure all around the country are identified as an important national asset and protected.
This bill will also seek to prevent all cases of vandalism by criminals and terrorists as well as other issues such as the denial of access to overhaul or upgrade BTS sites by local residents. It is important to ensure the prompt passage of this bill to help improve service quality challenges. In addition to passing the critical ICT infrastructure bill, it is also important to put in place adequate business continuity arrangements for all critical infrastructure to ensure adequate resilience, recovery capabilities and contingencies. Protection of critical infrastructure alone is insufficient and important to create a national ICT business continuity plan, which will examine all critical infrastructure, determine our recovery capabilities and put in place the necessary contingencies to assure recovery within required timelines. This business continuity plan must be frequently exercised to ensure that new risks are discovered, and that recovery and contingency measures are sufficient.
Also, in order to provide additional coverage and capacity, operators and tower companies need to deploy additional base stations quickly. This is a cost intensive and time consuming process, which is complicated by the fact that operators currently face multiple regulatory hurdles and taxes. These include national regulations such as Environmental Impact Assessment regulations, as well as state and local government regulations. There is a pressing need to address the issue of excessive regulations as well as multiple taxation at the federal and state levels and as well as at the local government level as these regulations and charges increase the cost and time taken to deploy services, which makes resolving quality of service challenges and meeting our national objectives difficult. The NCC has monitored the quality of service provided by mobile operators and has on several occasions’ sanctioned operators for breaching QoS targets. However, these sanctions alone are not enough. The government must work to address the challenges facing mobile operators in order to create a stable operating environment and also commit the operators to certain level of capital investments.
Why do you think we are having issues with subscriber biometric registration?
In 2011, the NCC directed all telecoms operators to begin registering SIM cards and collecting biometric information from all subscribers. All subscribers were subsequently advised to register their SIM cards or face disconnection. A few months ago the NCC gave the directive to all operators to disconnect all unregistered subscribers. This process caused a lot of complaints from subscribers as several subscribers who had already registered were disconnected. While the biometric registration exercise is a good initiative, it is necessary to ensure that all biometric data is adequately verified and harmonised. Steps must be taken by the operators and NCC to verify and cleanse each biometric date to ensure completeness and accuracy.
What do you think could be done to accelerate technology innovation in Nigeria?
No practical example better underscores the power of technology innovation than Estonia. According to the Economist, when Estonia regained its independence in 1991, less than half of its population had a telephone line and it had very limited links to the outside work. 25 years later, it is a world leader in technology. It has created several technology startups, its software developers created the software behind Skype and it even has developed a program to teach five year olds the basics of computer programming. Today technology industries account for 15 per cent of Estonia’s GDP. The Estonian example shows that it is possible to use IT as a catalyst for rapid growth. The Nigerian government must create an enabling environment to foster sustainable growth and development of the IT sector. The development of technology hubs such as the Information Technology Developers Entrepreneurship Accelerator, iDEA, must continue to be encouraged. The government must encourage the industry to promote, build, incubate and partner in the development and realisation of IT innovation hubs. In-addition, government support is required in the roll-out of awareness campaigns on IT Innovation coupled with government commitment towards funding some these hubs to catalyse private sector funding.