By Henry Nkemadu
On June 12, Nigeria will be celebrating “Democracy Day” and Twenty-one (21) years of uninterrupted democratic rule. And the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) riding on its mandate to connect Nigeria and create an information rich society, remains on the driver’s seat. Provision of the necessary digital impetus to the actualization of the economic diversification of Mr. President, tailored towards a free market economy which is not tied to oil and gas is on NCC’s priority list. This push is in tandem with the administration’s “Next Level Agenda” as it enters its fifth year in this long democratic race. During President Buhari’s first term, the NCC positioned telecoms as the baseline enabler for the realisation of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2017-2020 of the government, which is a short-term economic blue print designed to drive the economic diversification agenda of the government. Through deliberate and sustained efforts in driving major initiatives, programmes and necessary regulatory interventions, the NCC has been able to deepen access to telecommunications services- voice and data – across the country which has helped in positively impacting other sectors of the economy such as healthcare, education, agriculture, finance, transportation, commerce, governance, and so on.
NCC: A believer in President Muhammadu Buhari’s economic agenda The Executive Vice-chairman of the NCC, Professor Umar Garba Danbatta, is consistently supporting the economic agenda of President Buhari through the provision of more digital access to individuals, corporate and government for the implementation of the agenda has been validated by available official data. The Telecoms sector has witnessed huge growth in terms of the subscribers’ base, earnings to the government, increase in gross domestic product (GDP), teledensity and increase in foreign direct investments into the sector. Today, the sector has contributed 14.07 percent to GDP. Active mobile voice subscribers have increased to over 189 million with a teledensity of 99.16 percent. Internet subscribers have increased from 128,365,704 to 136,203,231; broadband penetration increased from 38.49 percent (indicating 73,466,093 on 3G and 4G networks) to 39.90 percent (76,163,670 on 3G and 4G networks). The Commission has committed millions of Naira to driving ICT innovations in the academia and among technology innovators. We have also activated and increased the number of operational Emergency Commission Centres (ECCs) being built by the Commission to 17 states throughout the Federation and the Federal Capital (FCT), Abuja – 18 ECCs in all.We have successfully scrubbed over 24 million invalidly-registered subscriber records via Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) in fulfilment of the mandate to establish a credible database of telephone subscribers. As a Commission, we have recently taken measures to regularise activities of all satellite operators including Space Station Operators as well as Earth Station operators; issuance of landing permits to Space Stations beaming signals over Nigerian territory. In line with our regulatory excellence, we have now put the Communications and Digital Economy Complex, Jabi, Abuja to use. This move has helped to leverage the various world-class facilities within the complex to increase NCC’s overall operational efficiency and subsequently achieve better cost-cutting measures in line with the Federal Government’s directive. Also, because of its huge impact on the nation’s GDP, developing broadband infrastructure to deepen penetration among individual and corporate consumers of telecoms services has been the focus of the Commission. Based on the understanding by the Commission that telecommunications breaks barrier and can act in its own right as an enabler of socio-economic transformation, growth and modernisation across all sectors of the economy, the NCC Management has deliberately embarked on initiatives, serving as digital fulcrum and catalyst that propel the inter-sectoral implementation of the socio-economic transformation agenda of the current government. One of such initiatives is the licensing of infrastructure companies (InfraCos) to provide additional robust broadband infrastructure across the geo-political zones in the country. Six(6) of the InfraCo licences have been issued to five(5) geo-political zones and Lagos carved out as the sixth zone because of its commercial centrality, while the last and seventh licence for the North Central region is being worked on by the Commission. This is in addition to several other strategic initiatives being embarked upon by the NCC to address sundry challenges confronting telecoms infrastructure deployment by the existing licensees.
Digital impetus for Next Level Agenda
To sustain its forward-looking economic growth agenda, President Muhammadu Buhari, has restated commitment to the cause of advancing and consolidating on the gains of his first-term economic transformation agenda. To this end, the President has tagged economic blueprint for his second term as the Next Level agenda. A cursory look at the Next Level agenda shows that the President, in the current dispensation, aims to focus on improving security, improving the economy and reducing poverty; as well as fighting corruption and corrupt practices. Speaking on the Next Level agenda recently, the Hon. Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Dr. Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, said he would ensure that all agencies under his ministry including the NCC key into supporting the President in achieving his new agenda. Nigeria recently launched a New National Broadband Plan (2020-2025) aimed to “deliver data download speeds across Nigeria at a minimum speed of 25Mbps in urban areas, and 10Mbps in rural areas, with effective coverage available to at least 90% of the population by 2025 at a price not more than N390 per 1GB of data (2% of median income or 1% of minimum wage)”.
During the presentation by the Committee on the NNBP (2020-2025), the Minister, Pantami, said: “The NNBP addresses 3 of the 8 priorities that the Federal Government assigned to the Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy, and the parastatals under its purview, for implementation. These priorities are the implementation of broadband connectivity and execution of a plan to deploy 4G across the country, as well as the development and implementation of a digital economy policy and strategy”.
The Minister continues, “The development of a Broadband Plan aligns with global best practice and the constitution of the Committee is in line with the powers of the Minister as stated in Section 23(a) of the Nigerian Communications Act 2003- the Minister shall be responsible for ‘the formulation, determination and monitoring of the general policy for the communications sector in Nigeria with a view to ensuring, amongst others, the utilization of the sector as a platform for the economic and social development of Nigeria”.
“…Broadband supports the development of the digital economy and a focus on growing the National Digital Economy will also improve and diversify the nation’s traditional economy. The implementation of the Plan will lead to creation of jobs, improved socio-economic development and sustained economic growth, amongst others. However, it is important to note that the successful implementation of the Plan requires synergy between government and the private sector”.
According to him, “telecoms has been supporting the country in the areas of job creation, improvement in security and efficiency as well as in making life easier and better for Nigerians, charging the NCC leadership “to continue in this direction and as any individual agenda will are bringing onboard must have direct bearing toward supporting the promises of President Muhammadu Buhari to succeed in his promise to Nigerians.” Thus, the Minister has thrown his weight behind the NCC’s InfraCo project in what he described as the correlation it has to propel the attainment of the Next Level agenda through accelerating increased digital access to Nigerians across the country. In the Next Level agenda, emphasis is placed on infrastructure with the critical ones being roads, rail, power, and the Internet, marked to be treated as ‘critical infrastructure’ and according to the Executive Vice Chairman (EVC)/Chief Executive, NCC, Prof. Umar Garba Danbatta, globally telecommunications has become an essential factor for measuring the level of a nation’s socio-economic and political development. He noted that countries with well-developed telecoms infrastructure tend to outshine their counterparts without adequate telecoms infrastructure in all development parameters.
5G: Next digital revolution for Next Level agenda
Without any doubt, the liberalisation of the telecoms industry has greatly impacted the different sectors of our economy. From e-commerce, e-banking, e-agriculture, e-healthy, e-transportation, e-education, etc. The liberalisation ushered in different players leveraging different technologies to offer services. The unprecedented growth recorded in the telecoms sector with a multiplier effect on other sectors of the economy has been as a result of the sound regulatory regime which has been consolidated in the last 19 years. We have come up with a lot of frameworks, regulations, guidelines and policies that have provided and will continue to create the enabling environment for future of telecommunications growth in Nigeria. The future is promising and as regulator, we see a lot of prospects ahead for the industry especially in the area of broadband penetration to accelerate the transformation of Nigeria into a truly knowledge and digital economy. The future of telecommunications in Nigeria, just as it is the case globally, is broadband and the NCC is well positioned to drive this digital frontier. In the last five years, we had put a lot of emphasis on deepening broadband penetration and we are creating an environment that allows operators to deploy the newest technologies that can offer Nigerians better service experience with greater efficiency. Consequently, it is our commitment to see that, going forward, all new sites to be built by mobile network operators (MNOs) are Long Term Evolution (LTE)-compatible; the implementation of the harmonised Right of Way (RoW) charges on State and Federal Government highways at the cost of N145 per linear meter is realised; there is elimination of multiple taxation and regulations; and spread of 3G coverage to, at least, 80 per cent of the Nigerian population over the current 56.4 per cent of the population covered with 3G networks. We are also ensuring the upgrade of 2G base transceiver stations to 3G; spread of 4G/LTE services to 100 per cent of the population with a minimum broadband speed of 1.5 megabit per second (Mbps); deployment of, at least, an Access Point of fiber with a 10 gigabyte per second (Gbps) capacity in all the 774 local government areas (LGAs) of the Federation through the InfraCo project. According to Danbatta, “with the impending commercial deployment of 5G technology globally by 2020, the Commission has started preparing for and planning, in earnest, to ensure Nigeria is not lagging behind in the area of 5G deployment”.We want to ensure spread of Fifth Generation (5G) to, at least, five per cent of the population. Already, the NCC in November, 2019 pioneered 5G trials in Nigeria, becoming the first telecoms regulator in West Africa to proactively begin such trials toward unleashing greater digital revolution. We have also worked with stakeholders to develop guidelines on the use of Television White Space (TVWS) to extend affordable broadband penetration to underserved and unserved areas. TVWS is the unused broadcast spectrum which can be deployed in the telecommunications sector to provide cost-effective broadband services to people in the rural, underserved and unserved areas of the country towards achieving universal access and universal service in line with the country’s digital agenda. In summary, the future of telecommunications in Nigeria is incrementally bright as the Regulator is always proactive in providing the regulatory environment for the deployment of cutting-edge technologies to further push Nigeria ahead in the digital revolution. The 5G era would be characterized by the upswing in the use of new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Big data, Fifth Generation (5G), Augmented Reality and many more all of which will advance sustainable development through the digital transformation it will bring for the economies.
“With 5G, the NCC is looking at three (3) usage scenarios, which include: the enhanced mobile broadband applications, the ultra-reliable low latency applications and the Machine to Machine (M2M) applications. Hence, 5G will be characterized by high speed, M2M explosion and low latency, all of which will require reliable broadband infrastructure, which is one of the pre-occupations of the Commission as we speak,” the EVC said.
He has also noted that three (3) frequencies: the 26GHz, 38GHz and 42 GHz are part of the frequencies approved by International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for 5G. This, he said, is in addition to the Commission’s ongoing effort to leverage television white (TVWS) technology to expand affordable broadband services to rural, unserved and underserved areas of the country.
The Commission has conducted 5G Proof of Concept (PoC) Trials. The EVC explained that the whole idea behind the trial is to be able to see what the challenges are with regards to 5G deployment in Nigeria. “Security challenges, level of radiation power density, whether this is within the acceptable limits provided for the International non-ionization radio Radiation Protection Agency as well as to address whatever challenges that we need to come to terms with preparatory to commercial rollout of 5G services in Nigeria.”
Role of infrastructure and spectrum to 5G
Danbatta has drawn correlation between 5G networks and effective telecoms infrastructure. Expectedly, 5G will offer higher Internet speed and low latency and machine to machine (M2M) exposition, all of which will run on robust broadband infrastructure, which the Commission is currently driving and will ultimately support the digitisation of the Nigerian economy towards accelerating the actualization of the President’s Next Level agenda.
He said: “Without pervasive infrastructure, the dream of rollout of 5G services will remain what it is, just a dream. As such, Nigeria has put in place the InfraCo project for this purpose. Also, we have put in place an excellent initiative of spectrum trading, to allow efficient utilization of licensed and existing spectrum through leasing or transfer to other operators from a licensee instead of keeping such spectrum idle.” Recently, the Commission suspended the Spectrum Trading Guidelines (2018) in order to carry out a review in response to global telecommunications dynamics and for more robust Spectrum trading activities. Paragraph 12 of Spectrum Trading Guides 2018 vests the Commission with the right to review/vary and modify the Guidelines from time to time as it may deem fit.
Telecoms Investment drive: The real boost for Next Level agenda
Telecoms, as an enabler for other sectors of the economy, is highly capital-intensive. As such, Danbatta said the support of the President is very key in support of the Commission’s efforts at addressing various challenges inhibiting investment into the country’s telecoms sector.
“Yes, we have recorded major milestones in our telecoms sector. But are we satisfied as a Regulator? The answer is ‘No’. This is because we still face inadequate infrastructure. Consequently, the NCC had identified 220 clusters of access gaps in the country and the real challenge behind connecting this large population of about 40 million is infrastructure deficit. This informs why the NCC evolved the InfraCo project with Public Private Partnership component embedded in it. In a recent update study carried out in 2019, the number of people living in the unserved and underserved areas was estimated to have dropped to 31.16 million and number of clusters reviewed down to 114.
Meanwhile, the EVC has assured that the Commission is committed to providing the enabling environment to attract the needed investment to expand 5G deployment while ensuring efficiency of existing technologies from 2G, to 3G and 4G towards providing the needed consistent digital impetus to the realisation of the Next Level Agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Dr. Henry NKEMADU
Director, Public Affairs Nigerian Communications Commission12 June 2020